When George W. Bush declared in June that he would compete to win in the Iowa Republican straw poll in Ames, his GOP opponents for the 2000 presidential nomination were gleeful: The Texas governor, in their view, had put his front-runner status on the line to compete in a meaningless event in a state that had rebuked his father.
"It's been primarily the national media and the political elites telling Iowans who the next president will be," former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander said at the time. "The straw poll is a chance for any of us to show that we have an organization capable of winning the caucuses in February."
Now some of those same Bush adversaries, including Alexander, are wondering whether they were suckered by Bush into a high-stakes game. Instead of Bush risking his front-runner status, many of them face the danger of getting wounded so badly in a supposedly meaningless event that their candidacies will survive in name only.
Bush, in the revised interpretation of the "Ames Straw Poll strategy," has so much money that he can afford to fail to meet expectations and continue campaigning. Some even argue that a setback on Saturday could help invigorate his campaign and bring a halt to any sense of complacency growing out of his front-runner status.
Conversely, the straw poll has become a matter of political and financial life-or-death for the faltering campaigns of such candidates as Alexander, former vice president Dan Quayle, Elizabeth Dole and Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch.
"The play [for Bush] is to get an early winnowing here to cut the field down and see who he could take out," said Tom Rath, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire who is backing Alexander and campaigning here.
Alexander agreed: "That is his strategy and so far it's working pretty well."
One of the few candidates who saw the writing on the wall soon after Bush said he would compete in the straw poll was television commentator Patrick J. Buchanan. "The main effect of your Iowa straw polls is the grim reaper is going to be waiting outside the gates of the Ames fieldhouse," Buchanan said. "About five or six of those fellas may never survive that. I wouldn't just include fellas. It's possible women could get damaged here, too."
Buchanan may end up being one of those wondering whether he will be looking the grim reaper in the eye at the end of the day Saturday. The outspoken conservative is giving increasing consideration to abandoning the GOP and seeking the nomination of the Reform Party and the $12.6 million in federal money that goes along with it.
Asked by Fox television correspondent Sean Hannity to confess whether he is thinking about the Reform Party, Buchanan quipped, "Let me admit, Father Hannity, I have engaged in impure thoughts about possibly running for another party." He added, "But no one has consummated any act, Father."
The Buchanan campaign received an unexpected boost today with the announcement by Iowa Teamsters union officials that they had bought 500 tickets for the straw poll. Mike Mathis, the union's legislative director, said "our people will be informed" that Buchanan is the only Republican contender who opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
The straw poll will be held in Ames, a city of just under 50,000 about 28 miles north of Des Moines. The event was designed as a fund-raiser for the state GOP, and the straw votes that are cast will have no direct relationship to how Iowa will vote in the caucuses next winter.
Publisher Steve Forbes is the only candidate equipped to compete at the same financial level as Bush, and he has pulled out the stops here, spending close to $1 million on television and almost the same amount on phone banks, polling, buses, uniformed staff and computers.
Alexander will have Miss Iowa in his tent in part to appeal to Iowa State fraternity members who are on campus for "Greek Week."
Dole, in turn, is hoping for a major turnout from her college sorority.
Not to be left behind, Bush today ran classified ads in the Des Moines Register offering to donate $500 to charity in the name of the Iowa State University fraternity or sorority that turns out the most votes for him. "It is not like we are trying to bribe them with beer," said Eric Woolson, a Bush spokesman.
Bush, campaigning today in Cedar Rapids, told a crowd of about 500 that the straw poll is important to show that a candidate "can convince good, hard-working, decent folks to show up on a day to start expressing their opinion about the future of this country. And I'm asking for your help. . . . We can prove someone who is compassionate and conservative can win without sacrificing principle." He said he believes he has "a good chance" of winning.
Bush seemed to ignore his Republican rivals today and to focus instead on the general election and the Democrats. He taunted President Clinton and Vice President Gore for taking credit for the booming economy. "I'd like to remind people, they no more invented prosperity than they invented the Internet," Bush said, referring to Gore's assertion that he helped invent the Internet.
While all the GOP candidates--with the exception of Arizona Sen. John McCain, who is not participating here--say they are aiming to win, there is also a second competition to determine the "real" conservative in the race. Among the competitors for this mantle are Buchanan, Forbes, former Reagan aide Gary Bauer, Quayle and former Reagan appointee Alan Keyes.
Campaigning in Indianola tonight, Bush vigorously defended his position on gun control, saying that enforcement of current laws is more important than new laws. He decried the "false illusion that all we've got to do is pass a law" to end gun violence.
Bush was criticized earlier this week by Gore on the gun issue. Asked if he had deliberately decided to defend his position in light of the criticism, Bush said no but acknowledged that "I might have raised the decibel level."
Staff writers Dan Balz and David S. Broder contributed to this report.