Texas Gov. George W. Bush eked out the narrowest of victories in Alaska's Republican straw poll Monday night, edging Steve Forbes by five votes.
Both men finished with about 36 percent of the vote. And Forbes's advisers wasted no time in claiming a moral victory over the acknowledged front-runner, who garnered 1,571 votes to Forbes's 1,566. They said their candidate finished in a virtual tie, hours after a strong finish in Iowa.
"Bush is the Big Kahuna, he's supposed to win this going away," said Don Devine, a longtime political operative who flew to Alaska to help the Forbes effort, which included making several thousand phone calls and mailings, not to mention distributing several dozen crates of Forbes's book, "A New Birth of Freedom."
"We're walking on top of the world," Devine said.
Bush's allies would have none of this. They professed a lack of interest in the outcome of a straw poll, portraying it as the playpen of the Republican Party's right wing. (Approximately 5 percent of registered Republicans voted in the straw poll, down from 10 percent in 1996).
The party establishment in the state did its best to deflate turnout, having narrowly defeated a proposal to move the date of the poll ahead of Iowa's caucuses. They feared a possible embarrassment for Bush.
"I suppose I have a slight smile on my face, but this is a blip on the way to the nomination," said David Hackney, an Anchorage advertising executive and GOP power broker. "If Forbes wants to call this a victory, fine. Big deal."
In fact, the straw poll has become a quadrennial skirmish in the ongoing civil war within the Alaska Republican Party. Considered a safe Democratic vote when it achieved statehood, Alaska has tacked resolutely rightward over the past two decades. The federal delegation--two senators and a representative--is Republican, and it is under constant pressure from the party's activist core to move further right.
The Alaska straw poll tends to draw the hardiest of these activists, social conservatives for whom establishment Republicanism is an elitist anathema. Pat Robertson won a past straw poll, and Patrick J. Buchanan took the top spot in 1996, drawing a large majority of the vote from veterans, oil workers and religious families in the glacier-rimmed Mat-Su Valley to the north and the mountainous Kenai Peninsula to the south.
Voters in the same precincts gave majorities to Forbes, but activists expressed disappointment with the turnout. Interviews with three dozen voters in both regions found many willing to vote their conservative heart in the primary--Alan Keyes and Forbes did particularly well--even as they are resigned to voting for Bush in the general election.
After eight years of President Clinton, the voters said, it is time for a Republican, even if he sports a suspiciously mainstream stripe. "My personal support goes to a sure loser: Keyes," said Walt Fergus, a 75-year-old Mat-Su Valley homesteader, a Santa Claus look-alike resplendent in a flowing white beard and ponytail. "Keyes comes closest to saying what I want to hear, but I guess I could vote for more-of-the-same Bush if I had to."
Arizona Sen. John McCain finished third in the straw vote, with 412 votes, virtually tied with Keyes, who had 411 votes. Gary Bauer finished with 207 votes and Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch pulled 163 votes.
Thomas McKay, the party chairman, declared the straw poll a victory of sorts. "We got candidates like Forbes talking about Alaskan issues and taking positions, and that's a start," he said. "And whatever the Bush people say, they sure worked hard to win a 'blip' in the road."