At their victory celebration Monday night following George W. Bush's first-place finish, it was hard to tell whether his high command was more worried about Bill Bradley's collapse or Steve Forbes's revival. In combination, those two events could block the Texas governor's majestic procession to the Republican presidential nomination.
Even before Al Gore's 2 to 1 victory over Bradley in Iowa's Democratic caucuses became known, nightly tracking polls in New Hampshire showed the vice president firming up a double-digit lead in that state's primary next Tuesday. The hemorrhage of Bradley voters now could worsen--not Democrats going to Gore but independents entering the Republican primary to vote for Sen. John McCain (who apparently did not lose his gamble of bypassing Iowa).
Monday night's pre-Iowa New Hampshire tracking by pollster John Zogby showed that while McCain was keeping a six-point lead over Bush, the governor was still No. 1 among both self-designated "conservative" and "very conservative" voters. But he was slipping in each category. Based on his strong second place in Iowa, Forbes's anemic 10 percent in New Hampshire may grow.
The squeeze is clearly on George W., and his tactical options are unpleasant. To emphasize his "compassionate" side in order to battle McCain for independents could risk Bush's conservative base against a resurgent Forbes flying the tax-cut banner. Forbes campaign manager Bill Dal Col's rash prediction that Bush would finish third in New Hampshire now is in the realm of the possible. That third place would transform the political landscape.
Bush can blame Bradley most. The former senator lost badly in Iowa, and looked bad doing it. Gore relied on unenthusiastic but dependable elements of the Democratic coalition--labor union members, schoolteachers, senior citizens, poor farmers. The Democratic caucus turnout was low.
Bradley never delivered a message to stir new voters into spending a couple of hours for him on a clear and mild Monday night. Bush can only pray for a miraculous injection of energy into the Bradley campaign, enough to dissuade independents from moving to McCain in New Hampshire.
In the first primary state, McCain relies on independents, with a 57 to 22 edge against Bush among them in pre-Iowa tracking. Playing to them, McCain looks less conservative by the day. On Tuesday morning over ABC, he casually said he would try to amend the party's antiabortion plank--which would bring chaos at the national convention in Philadelphia.
In the wake of Iowa, Bush can no longer claim sole possession of the antiabortion and pro-tax-cut torch against McCain. Now that Forbes has salvaged his campaign, he will hammer the governor as insufficiently conservative on both issues.
Bush cannot be unhappy with 41 percent here, a record in a multi-candidate Republican caucus field, and a plurality among conservatives and the "Christian right." Bush's problem was Forbes, bettering his own polls and fulfilling his supporters' dreams with 30 percent to create the potential for a three-way race in New Hampshire. The profligate expenditure of time and money finally connected in Iowa.
How Bush finished first in Iowa was shown by the caucus I attended Monday night: the middle-income, moderate 70th precinct in Des Moines. The one-minute nominating speech for Bush by Rep. Greg Ganske, a party maverick who presses campaign finance reform and patient protection, said of the governor: "He is a conservative, and he is for the little guy."
What did 70th precinct Bush supporter Nancy Smith, a Drake University employee, think of Bush? She paused, then replied: "He's improving."
Her husband, insurance man Todd Smith, was not happy that Bush had moved right on abortion but backed him compared with Forbes, of whom he said: "There's no way he can ever be president. Totally unqualified!"
Bush won 96 of the precinct's 150 voters, compared with 31 for Forbes--his cushion in such moderate strongholds that propelled him to statewide victory. McCain, nominated from the floor by an 18-year-old student's impromptu speech, picked up only 11 votes. What would the outcome have been if Bush had had to contend with McCain on his left as well as Forbes on his right in Iowa? He may find out in New Hampshire.
(c) 2000, Creators Syndicate Inc.