Saturday's Iowa straw poll provided answers to questions about Texas Gov. George W. Bush's political muscle, the viability of Elizabeth Dole's candidacy, the strength of the religious right and whether those in the bottom of the pack could survive.
Bush proved he could win without bowing to Iowa's demands for a huge investment in person-to-person campaigning, substituting organizational proficiency and the argument of electability to decisively prevail in the first major test in the Republican nomination fight.
While the straw poll did not dramatically reshape the Republican presidential race, the win places Bush at the front of the pack, a position that in recent history has been nearly invulnerable to challenge. For the past 30 years, the candidate ahead in the polls at this stage of the GOP contest has always won the nomination.
But in victory, Bush will face renewed and intensified scrutiny of his candidacy and additional pressure to begin to define himself on critical issues sooner than he may like.
Dole revived a campaign that had started off in January with a burst of energy, but has been struggling against declining poll numbers and anemic fund-raising. Finishing third, she beat lowered expectations, and her backers said two-thirds of those who supported her in the straw poll were women, a sign that she can attract new voters to the GOP.
Dole's advisers said they hope her finish in the straw poll would translate into more contributions, a particular weakness in her candidacy. But some of her supporters also were saying openly today that her finish enhanced her chances of becoming the party's vice presidential nominee, a reflection of Bush's strength.
Dole's third-place finish could cause problems for Arizona Sen. John McCain, who opted out of the straw poll. McCain indicated today that he may skip the Iowa caucuses next winter, preferring to make his first test the primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. But a resurgent Dole would complicate his hopes of becoming the most credible establishment challenger to Bush in those states.
The social and religious right often has done well at these kinds of party events, which require a major investment of time, energy and enthusiasm by participants. Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson won the 1987 straw poll and Texas Sen. Phil Gramm tied Robert J. Dole for first in 1996.
This year, the absence of a consensus candidate among the social conservatives helps to ease Bush's bid. And on Saturday, centrist Republicans backing Bush and Dole outgunned the religious conservatives.
Magazine publisher Steve Forbes, by finishing second, said that he emerged in Ames as the dominant conservative candidate, but his claim was sharply disputed by activist Gary L. Bauer, who finished fourth.
Forbes had growing hopes in the days leading up to the straw poll that he might upset Bush or finish a close second. In the end, he finished closer to Dole than to Bush. Now, he and Bauer are likely to continue a long and tough fight for the leadership of the conservative wing of the party, and, as long as that battle rages, Bush remains less vulnerable to assault.
Never before has the Iowa straw poll winnowed the field of candidates -- a role normally reserved for the early winter precinct caucuses that begin the nominating process. But this year, with the entire campaign on an accelerated cycle, the straw poll performed that function.
Former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander invested more time in Iowa the past four years than any other candidate, but his disappointing sixth-place finish showed that the old-fashioned approach to campaigning here isn't enough to assure success.
Former vice president Dan Quayle finished eighth in the contest, and while he stubbornly vowed to keep going, most political strategists doubt he can attract the money or support to make a fight of it.
Even though Bush's winning percentage fell well below his standing in national polls -- and somewhat lower than his numbers in Iowa polls -- his advisers claimed they were more than satisfied with his performance here. After considerable internal debate over whether he should compete at all in the straw poll, Bush declared on June 12 that not only would he compete but that he intended to win, raising the stakes for his own candidacy and for his rivals as well.
Bush's team then set an unexpectedly high goal of turning out 5,000 voters -- double the previous high. The governor exceeded the goal by tripling the past record, capturing almost 7,500 votes.
Bush's front-runner status now puts him in a position where his challengers will have to defy history to dislodge him. In every election since 1960, the Republican candidate ahead in the polls at this stage in the contest -- roughly 15 months before the general election -- has gone on to win the nomination, according to Fred Steeper, a pollster working for Bush.
Conversely, on the Democratic side, only half of the front-runners have survived to win their party's nomination. "We crown our princes, the Democrats kill theirs," one GOP strategist has said.
But rarely has a Republican front-runner won the nomination without a clear setback and a fight in the primaries, often a battle between the opposing ideological forces that leaves the party weakened in the general election. Bush's team said today that it anticipates a fight in the early primaries.
Bush's victory may have reaffirmed the strength of his political operation, but the candidate still faces questions about his preparation to be president, his grasp of the issues and his youthful past.
While he easily won the straw poll, his speech to the audience of party activists generated less enthusiasm than did the speeches of some of the other candidates. But Bush strategist Karl Rove said today that the turnout for Bush in the straw poll underscored the grass-roots appeal of his candidacy.
With his opponents stepping up their attacks, Bush already is under fire among some conservatives. An article in the first issue of Talk magazine this month has prompted criticism of Bush for his views on abortion, his apparent insensitivity toward a woman on death row in Texas who was executed and his overall demeanor.
Bauer criticized Bush last week over the interview, and conservative columnist George F. Will chided the governor for taking the Republican Party "along on his ride." In a column published last week, Will wrote that Bush and his party "will care if on Nov. 7, 2000, people think of [Vice President] Gore or [former New Jersey senator Bill] Bradley as an unexciting but serious professor and of him as an amiable fraternity boy, but a boy."
The Bush campaign has said that his conversations with author Tucker Carlson were either off the record or taken out of context. Bush even went so far as to say he had not really been interviewed, that Carlson had traveled with him merely to "get a flavor" of the campaign. "It wasn't a sit-down interview," he told reporters Friday night.
Bush also continues to face questions about whether he used drugs as a younger man, despite his repeated statements that he will not answer such questions. On Saturday, he appeared on CNN's "Evans, Novak, Hunt and Shields." Asked about rumors that he had used cocaine, he said he would not dignify rumors with an answer.
"I can't stand the politics of personal destruction," he said. "I think it's bad for America. I think it sends a signal to people that politics is ugly, and therefore I don't want to participate." He added that by not playing "the Washington, D.C., game of gossip, people may draw certain conclusions about me," but said it was time for politicians "to stand up and say enough is enough of this."
Bush's campaign advisers believe he can weather such questions and criticisms, and they remain in no hurry to start offering more details of his policy positions.
His opponents are clamoring for debates with Bush, but his campaign advisers held out only modest hope today of that happening soon. "I'm sure there will be plenty of opportunity for debates, and depending on the schedule of the primaries and caucuses, some of those may occur late this year," campaign strategist Karl Rove said.