It is May and all of Iowa is bathed in a springtime of blue sky and sun, but in the Gateway Center Motel in Ames, Rich Bond and Lee Kidder are in no position to know it.
They are in danger of being welded at the ear to their telephones, ensconced in rooms that are a class above traditional American motel plastic, as they work at stacking the audience of an upcoming Republican Party dinner. They are stacking, legally and ethically, in the name of George Bush.
Few national politicos have heard much of this dinner that is planned for May 21 in Ames. But then few Iowans have heard much of George Bush, and practically none have heard of Rich Bond and Lee Kidder.
No matter. This is how the presidency will be pursued -- and perhaps won -- in 1980. Two young men from out of state, sitting in a motel in Iowa in early 1979, working the phones, hoping they are making a president.
For the Democrats, the race in Iowa between the president and the surviving son of a great political dynasty eventually will turn with the ebb and flow of public opinion -- far more so than in caucuses past, as the views of Iowa's Democratic activists seem to be mirrored in the findings of the national opinion polls.
But for the Republicans, the story of the Iowa caucuses in 1980 will be much more a standard of caucus politics -- organization and upward mobility. It will be the story of how George Bush came out of George Gallup's nowhere to win. But it will also be the story of how the poll-popular front-runner, Ronald Reagan, and the other more glittering names of the Grand Old Party managed to lose. It will be a mix of big-time political strategy-making and of Rich Bond and Lee Kidder spending their May days fixed fast to their motel phones.
The Bush men are operating on this Iowa spring day in 1979 on the assumption that The Des Moines Register will be conducting a straw poll at the GOP dinner to see who is favored to win the presidential nomination.
A straw poll at a dinner eight months ahead of the voting is an essentially meaningless political exercise, but the Register is a mighty political force in Iowa. And so the Bush campaign has imported Bond and Kidder from Washington and it has gotten them lists of people who bought dinner tickets in the past, and now they are at work running a sort of clearinghouse for freebie tickets.
Bond and Kidder have discovered that many tickets are purchased as package plans -- a big contributor buys a block of tickets and gets some additional free tickets as a bonus. So they are trying to line up all loose tickets on the one hand, and all the people who would be willing to use those tickets to go to the dinner and vote for Bush on the other.
George Bush is but a cipher in the national polls that rank Ronald Reagan as the front-runner and that show Gerald Ford, Howard Baker and John Connally doing well. (Even Lowell Weicker, with 4 percent in an ABC News-Harris poll, is way ahead of Bush.)
On May 21, no national presidential hopefuls bother to come to Ames, Iowa. But Libby Dole has come over from neighboring Kansas to shake some hands on behalf of her husband, Bob, and Barbara Bush is there on behalf of George -- and she is accompanied by a high school band to build hoopla, area students to distribute leaflets and a brigade of Bush operatives with walkie talkies to coordinate all the above. Attendance at the dinner comes to 1,800, and, sure enough, the Register takes a poll.
"George Bush Tops Field in Republican Straw Poll."
The headline is displayed prominently on page one of the May 23 Des Moines Register, and to the Bush strategists it seems to be written in neon, if not gold. Bush gets 39.6 percent to Reagan's 25.9 and the rest are scattered.
Ronald Reagan's people look upon George Bush's dinner poll tactic as a rather collegiate stunt -- the political equivalent of stuffing bodies into a phone booth -- fitting, perhaps, for a political cipher who has nothing but his asterisk, but beneath the dignity of a front-runner. Reagan's people figure they are bearing up well under a minor whittling effort from the young right. A few of Reagan's old 1976 organizers have cast their lot with Philip Crane (they see him as the next generation of Reagan), but enough of the old guard is in place and Reagan is already running at a Gallup. So they do not fret over straw poll statistics.
But George Bush's people will eventually take those figures to the phone bank, and convert them into long-term dividends. The heralding of the straw poll has given people throughout Iowa a reason to consider Bush a candidate who, while far from being a front-runner, is nevertheless apart from the pack. He was won something: It is respectable now to work for George Bush in Iowa, and many sign up to do that.
Those whose job it is to create lore and those whose job it is to disseminate it have made it gospel that the Bush campaign in Iowa was the 1980 version of Carter's success there in 1976. This is true, in a sense, just as it is true that Nancy Sinatra made it as a professional singer because she had voice lessons.
When Carter came to Iowa from nowhere in the polls, well before 1976, he had to introduce himself to the local politicians several times before they came to understand who he was. When he wanted to go on a local television talk show, he had to promise "something different," so he unveiled, live and in color, his Plains, Ga., recipe for frying catfish (mystery ingredients: Bisquick and Heniz 57 sauce). He was a political unknown.
When Bush first came to Iowa, the groundwork already has been laid in a small but exclusive gathering in Ralph Brown's living room in Dallas Center, Iowa, on the last Friday in February.
They are meeting to recommend a strategy on how to elect Bush in Iowa. Among those attending are two of Iowa's top Republicans: Mary Louise Smith, who was the Republican National Committee's co-chairman back when Bush was the party's chairman, and John McDonald, Iowa's national GOP committeeman.
Smith -- will not publicly endorse Bush until December; McDonald has not endorsed Bush yet. Yet both have been working quietly in his behalf all along.
By the time Bush is ready to announce his cadidacy, his longstanding GOP connections have put together a 68-member steering committee that itself makes news.
"Bush Builds Impressive Iowa Support," the Des Moines Register says in a front-page story on the Bush steering committee, with a subhead on page three that says 'Bush Backers: 'Who's Who' in Iowa GOP" and a listing of all 68 committee members.
For the Democrats, in June, the front-runner is a noncandidiate who is running on a wink and a nod. That campaign fuel is there for all to see in Cedar Rapids, when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, tall, handsome, a shouting-strong stump speaker and a seemingly confident noncampaigner, chooses to go to a cocktail party fund-raiser in the place where the draft-Kennedy movement was born.
Kennedy is shaking hands and enjoying the party when a squared-off man in a brown suit comes up and extends his hand. "I'm Bill Fenton," he says.
"Ohhhh," says Kennedy, bursting into a smile, shaking hands but playing to the reporters just off to the side. "Don't look over your shoulder or those guys will be looking for a big wink or something."
Then Kennedy delivers a big, stagey wink. And the founder of the draft-Kennedy movement, a machinists union man, smiles back.
These are heady times for the noncandidate and his noncampaign. Back in February, the Des Moines Register poll showed that only 17 percent of those surveyed favored Carter, compared to 40 percent for Kennedy and 12 percent for California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.
In July, William Romjue sits in the Class Reunion, a Washington saloon, looking just about as down as a person can get. Romjue is Carter's Iowa coordinator, and his depression is caused by the fact that he doesn't have enough support in behalf of the president of the United States to coordinate.
"When I got to Iowa in April, it was hard to get 15 people who would come out to support Carter," Romjue says at one point. "I could get 14 -- but they would want to come and complain about Carter, not work for him."
Things are somewhat better for Carter in Florida, where, in October, Carter operatives are able to use the muscle of the state's Democratic Party hierarchy, fed by top White House manpower and favors, to steamroll the unofficial draft-Kennedy effort in a statewide straw vote caucus.
Is is Oct. 13. Kennedy has just done a tub-thumper in Louisville for the Democratic candidate for governor, John Y. Brown, the baron of Kentucky fried chicken. He is standing in the biting chill of the auditorium parking lot, trying to tell the reporters and cameras and microphones the difference between what is meaningless political game-playing and what really counts.
There was no official Kennedy campaign effort in Florida, he says, and pauses. Iowa, he says, will be the "first real test."
While Bush is trying to catch Reagan by cultivating an organization built on Iowa's grass roots, Connally is going after another sort of green. He is banking on fund-raiser David H. Murdock of Beverly Hills, Calif., and Murdock is banking mainly on bankers.
Connally builds his campaign on money, not organization. He will find that money buys lots of media ads, but that when it comes to delivering people who will speak out for you in caucuses, money does not talk.
While Bush puts together a campaign built around first-rate advisers and then agrees to follow their strategic advice, Howard Baker puts together an organization of another sort. It is built around homestate Tennessee volunteers who prove themselves as inept as Bush's team is the opposite. One top Baker official in Iowa has no car and thus is limited in his ability to politic around the state. Eventually, Baker has to scrap his national staff, as well as that in Iowa, and start over.
In contrast, Bush goes on to win straw polls at the five big Republican dinners. (His victory in an Oct. 13 dinner is blunted when the Des Moines Register, jealous that its competitors are allowed to take the roll, publishes the next day the results of a poll taken way back in August, showing Baker with 23 percent and Bush with only 1 percent of Republican support.)
It is January 1980, and the scent of New Hampshire is strong in Iowa.
Candidates are spending and campaigning (and the media is spending and monitoring) as if this were the first primary of the year. Bush has doubled his campaign budget for Iowa just to keep up with the pack.
On Monday, the distinction between the Iowa caucus and the first primary of the year in New Hampshire will be perhaps forever blurred as Iowans jam the caucuses in numbers roughly equal to the number who voted in New Hampshire in 1976. The turnout will be twice what the pols expected. The candidates and their strategists will be stunned.
For Carter, the race turns around as his polls climb, and Kennedy's fall, with the crises in Iran and Afghanistan; both have excellent organizations in place. For Reagan, the race turns sour when he refuses to appear in the Des Moines Register debate, and campaigns instead with distant reserve. For Bush, steady organization proves the key -- he has spent his money on phone banks that identified supporters and waverers, has sent each a mailing with directions to his or her precinct caucus.
Reagan people do less phoning, except for Des Moines, opting instead for a half-hour statewide TV show, featuring Reagan entering the hall as the band plays the disco hit, "Macho Man."
"We didn't have to phone and organize the way Bush did," Reagan's Iowa coordinator Peter McPherson explains. It is Monday night, just two hours before the caucuses are to convene. "They started from a different base than we did. They did not have loyalties that were long and deep.
"Bush will do well. He should be a strong second." (TABLE) 02,13,12 *2*DEMOCRATS Carter(COLUMN)59 percent Kennedy(COLUMN)31 percent Uncommitted(COLUMN)10 percent Brown(COLUMN)0 percent *2*REPUBLICANS Bush(COLUMN)33 percent Reagan(COLUMN)27 percent Baker(COLUMN)14 percent Connally(COLUMN)10 percent Crane(COLUMN)7 percent Anderson(COLUMN)4 percent Dole(COLUMN)3 percent Other(COLUMN)2 percent(END TABLE)
Totals reflect 95.6 percent of the Democratic vote and 78 percent of the Republican vote.