IDA GROVE, IOWA, JAN. 18 -- Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson put his much-feared "invisible army" on display today in Iowa for the first time in four months. It looked smaller, but glitzier than expected.
The occasion was an ambitious, 13-hour campaign tour by bus across the state -- from the Mississippi River on the East to the Missouri River on the West. The tour was full of as much political hoopla as Robertson could muster.
Preceding Robertson was a sound truck that blared the arrival of his caravan -- which included three buses, four phones, two state police cars and as many as 25 cars. There were balloons, Robertson T-shirts for sale, free Robertson tape recordings, carefully painted signs to wave and a loudspeaker that played the "Washington Post March."
The two-day tour is the first time Robertson's much-feared organization has been on display since it produced an upset victory over Vice President Bush and Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) in a major GOP straw poll last September.
The tour demonstrated that Robertson's organization is capable of conducting a difficult campaign swing with clockwork efficiency, and draw on large pockets of support in some areas.
But the crowds that greeted Robertson, who is running third in statewide polls, were smaller than those turning out for Bush and Dole in recent weeks. One hundred or fewer people showed up to see him at most stops, and at several almost half the crowd consisted of his traveling party, which included a busload of 30 supporters. In Cedar Rapids, the state's second largest city, organizers moved the rally from a large union hall to an outdoor spot beside Robertson's bus so the crowd would not look as small.
Robertson, tanned and looking relaxed three weeks before Iowa's Feb. 8 precinct caucuses, said the crowds were "marvelous" and "exceeded our expectations." He called the tour, which will take him across the state twice, "unprecedented."
It is the most ambitious swing attempted by any Republican or Democratic presidential candidate in the 1988 race, and some campaign aides had argued it would be "impossible to pull off." The swing took place a day after a Des Moines Register Iowa Poll found Dole leading the GOP pack with the support of 41 percent of expected caucus-goers, followed by Bush with 26 percent and Robertson with 11 percent. Robertson's support grew to 15 percent among those most likely to attend the caucuses.
Dole and Bush's Iowa campaigns have been nervously eyeing the Robertson organization for months. Tom Synhorst, Dole's Iowa coordinator, was so curious that he showed up at a Robertson rally in Ames -- one of Robertson's best events of the day, attracting almost 200 people.
Robertson's organization "is the big unknown," Synhorst said. "We've got three weeks to see if it's real or not."
At almost every stop, Robertson predicted that an Iowa victory could put him in the White House. "You win Iowa for me, and I will win America for you," he said in DeWitt, a town of 4,600 that calls itself "the Crossroads of America."
"Without question, the United States of America stands at a crossroads," Robertson said. "We have a crisis in leadership. We have a crisis in the federal budget deficit. More than anything we have a moral crisis."
In Tipton, he said, "I want to see a time in America where husbands love their wives and wives love their husbands . . . I want to see a time when we bring God back in the schools."
At several spots, Robertson asked how many in the crowd had ever attended a caucus before. Usually, only a handful raised their hands affirmatively. Typically, two or three times that many said they intend to do so this year. "The only qualification you need is to be 18, warm and breathing," Robertson said at one point. And that is exactly what worries Bush and Dole forces here, who fear that Robertson might be able to bring enough new voters to score an upset.