In the expected march to substantial first-place finishes by George W. Bush and Al Gore in Iowa's presidential caucuses tonight, one question mark remains. Can Steve Forbes salvage something from his expensive, disappointing second try for the Republican presidential nomination?

The possibility of a stronger-than-predicted runner-up finish by the magazine publisher is based on his late surge, typified in Saturday's campaigning. Forbes drew double the crowds of Bush in Sioux City and Council Bluffs the same weekend and capped that performance with a rousing reception at a Christian conservative rally that Bush skipped.

That spells potential trouble for the governor of Texas. Forbes supporters aim to perform better than the Iowa polls indicate. Their twin goals: Push aside fellow conservatives Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes to reach 30 percent and finish in single digits behind Bush.

That could jump-start Forbes's flat campaign in New Hampshire, taking votes from Bush in the Feb. 1 primary, much to the benefit of Sen. John McCain.

The trouble with Forbes, many Republicans grumble and Bush reminds them, is his reputation for negative politics based on his 1996 campaign against Bob Dole. But during the last weekend of campaigning here, he pressed his theme that Bush is not conservative enough--attacking mostly under the political radar screen. Radio commercials assailed the governor's record, using a medium that political reporters seldom monitor.

Nor did many reporters attend Saturday night's rally at the huge Assembly of God church on the outskirts of Des Moines. More than 1,000 Christians showed their delight as Forbes--accompanied by conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly--made a previously unannounced appearance. Forbes had to wait through a long antiabortion harangue by Howard Phillips, permanent presidential candidate of the Constitution Party. Then Forbes lambasted the Roe v. Wade decision as "misbegotten" and "murderous."

Where was Bush? Why bypass a big audience addressed by Forbes, Bauer and Keyes in a race in which he seeks to burnish his conservative credentials? The ticket of admission was signing organizer Bill Horn's pledge to restore the ban on homosexuals in the military, and that is not Bush's position. "Unlike George Bush," Forbes said, as he put his name alongside Howard Phillips's on the pledge, "I don't hedge on the pledge."

How much things can change. Four years ago on the Saturday before the Iowa caucuses, Forbes, in an ill-advised eleventh-hour bid for moderate support, attacked the Christian right. He finished fourth.

Twelve years ago, Vice President George Bush unashamedly carried the banner of the party's then-vigorous liberal wing to a third-place finish.

In 2000, no Republican campaigns for president in Iowa as a moderate, much less a liberal. With Forbes operatives circulating Bush's sometimes evasive answers on abortion, the governor sent a clearer signal. After dodging the issue only six days earlier, Bush said he favors retention, unchanged, of the Republican national platform's tough antiabortion plank.

Using campaign rhetoric nearly as conservative as Forbes's, Bush is a much more natural campaigner who eagerly engages in conversation with any voter attending his rallies. Contrary to the official line, he and his aides will be bitterly disappointed if they don't far surpass Dole's 1988 Republican record of 37 percent in a multi-candidate rally.

On the Democratic side, Vice President Gore seems headed for a lopsided victory over Bill Bradley, who has made a huge investment of time and money in Iowa.

The decline for the former senator began at the debate two weeks ago, when he could not immediately respond to Gore's question about why Bradley voted against a 1993 version of flood aid for farmers. In the Gore campaign's trademark combativeness, that single vote has been repeated endlessly in television commercials.

The gloom enveloping Bradley headquarters lifted a little late Saturday night by getting the unexpected word that the Des Moines Register, the state's largest newspaper, had endorsed Bradley. That might not prevent a Gore landslide here, which could ruin Bradley's once bright prospects in New Hampshire. But over the weekend Bradley drew large, enthusiastic crowds of supporters who will not soon forget what they regard as the vice president's brutal onslaught.

(c) 2000, Creators Syndicate Inc.