Gov. George W. Bush no doubt will take some comfort from his victory in the Iowa straw poll on Saturday, but he probably shouldn't take too much.
As former Presidents Pat Robertson and Phil Gramm, among others, can attest, winning this early vote is vital for a candidate who wants to win his party's nomination, let alone the whole enchilada 15 months from now.
Still, it's hard to argue against the fact that Bush
-- who first came to Iowa only a few weeks ago, and beat second-place finisher/oddball gazillionaire Steve Forbes by 10.5 percent -- seems to be striking a chord among voters.
"Two months ago when my Iowa supporters convinced me to participate in this straw poll, some pundits said I had nothing to gain and potentially a lot to lose," a jubilant, goofy Bush gushed to his supporters under his tent. "Well thanks to you, we gained a lot ... We jump-started our grass-roots organization for the main event, the Iowa caucuses."
Bush's victory seems slightly more significant in that this year's event drew the biggest turnout in straw poll history. Over 23,000 Iowans voted this year -- almost a quarter of the electorate in the last Iowa caucus. This compares with the 1979 straw poll, which drew only 1,454 voters; the 1987 straw poll, with 3,843; and the 1995 event, which drew 10,958. That last one ended as a rather suspicious tie between Gramm and the eventual party nominee, Bob Dole.
In addition, this year the voters had to be actual Iowans, as opposed to anybody with a pulse -- the standard in '95. Safeguards were taken this time around to prevent voter fraud, which was reportedly rampant four years ago.
Nevertheless, the vote on Saturday, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Iowa state GOP, had its share of critics. "This isn't democracy," complained Rob Tully, head of the Iowa Democratic Party. "They're handing these ballots out like candy."
Calling the straw poll a "sham" that contributes to "the pessimism and the cynicism" Americans feel about the role of money in politics, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., boycotted the event, spending his weekend instead on a boat in the middle of Lake Powell in Arizona. (McCain's opposition to ethanol subsidies hasn't exactly endeared him to the Iowa farm community, so maybe it was just as well the senator boycotted the poll. His campaign is hardly catching on here, and he may even bypass the Iowa caucuses next January.)
Noting that the other nine candidates had collectively spent millions of dollars on the event -- and underestimating the actual voter turnout -- McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky estimated the cost of each vote at $5,000 to $10,000. "Why not just buy everyone a car?" Opinsky asked.
He had a point, though his figures were exaggerated.
Straw poll ballots cost $25, which the campaigns were only too happy to purchase for their voters. A few weeks ago, the two richest candidates got into a bidding war over the choicest tent spots outside the Hilton Coliseum at the Iowa State University campus. The Bushies ended up shelling out $43,500, while the Forbes campaign snatched up the spot right next door for only $8,000. A little further away from the action, the other candidates erected their tents, where they entertained their voters by serving up pork, shade and even the occasional celebrity.
Even with its cash-and-circus atmosphere, the straw poll has always been a good testing ground for bigger and better things. Bush can now claim that his appeal lies in more than the approval of the media and the GOP elite. But others claimed victory here as well. "Forbes did awfully well," says Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report. "He's
going to have to be taken seriously."
On the other hand, William Kristol of the Weekly Standard pointed out that "Forbes went to 77 [of Iowa's 99 counties]; Bush went to, I think, three. And Bush still beat him. The trouble for Forbes is, when is he ever going to have better circumstances? Money will never matter more."
The third-place finisher, sugar-coated Red Cross dominatrix Elizabeth Dole, "did better than anybody who isn't willing to blow the caps off" spending limits, said her campaign manager Tom Daffron. "We're in a different economic class than the two who beat us."
Daffron pointed out that Forbes is said to have poured more than $2 million into the contest, and "I don't know what Bush spent. They claim to have only spent $750,000, but if you believe that, I got some aluminum siding I want to sell you."
As a rough validation of the straw poll, Bush, Forbes and Dole also secured the top three places in a Harris Poll of 1,177 Iowans last week, with 42 percent of the Republicans choosing Bush, and 13 percent choosing both Forbes and Dole.
Lilliputian Christian conservative Gary Bauer scored fourth in the straw poll, which was a symbolic victory. Resounding defeats were handed to the kind-but-pathetic former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who has basically lived here since '96, and Hoosier Dan Quayle, who, embarrassingly, finished behind even frothing preacher man Alan Keyes.
"The thing struck me the most is that 55 percent of the votes went to people who have never been elected to public office," says Kristol. "Nos. 2 through 5 have never been elected to anything. I know the Bush people think that this is great -- that Forbes and Dole and Bauer and Buchanan are not credible candidates -- but this seems to me to be a new era of American politics, the era of Jesse Ventura and Warren Beatty. I mean, these people beat former vice presidents and governors and senators."
No one could say how large the turnout would be in advance -- but apparently in Iowa, if you build it, they will come. Too much so, by some accounts. In fact, it was so crowded that the fire marshal wouldn't let anyone into the Hilton Coliseum between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m., during the candidates' speeches and peak voting hours. Lines for polling places resembled those for Space Mountain. Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad reportedly had to wait in line for 45 minutes to cast his vote for Alexander.
For everyone but Bush, the real question here was whether anyone could emerge to mount a serious challenge to the Texas governor. Only a few weeks ago, for instance, GOP consultant Sal Russo received a phone call from Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch asking what Russo thought about his decision to throw his hat into the ring.
"Orrin, didn't you hear?" Russo responded. "We already coronated George W. Bush!"
"You really think that?" Hatch asked. "You really think that it's over? Because if you really think that, I won't run."
Russo says he thought about it a bit. Having worked for Ronald Reagan in four elections -- '68, '76, '80 and '84 -- he knew that even masters like the Gipper were doomed to stumble sooner or later. "Reagan faltered in all four of those races," Russo says. "So there's no question that a mere mortal like George W. Bush is going to falter." Russo gave Hatch the green light.
Thus, with the exception of McCain, every Republican candidate put forth a valiant effort, pouring dollar after dollar into the Iowa funnel, riding their volunteers hard and mercilessly, crisscrossing the state from Mt. Pleasant to Clear Lake, Council Bluffs to Dubuque, urging, begging, pleading with recalcitrant Iowans for their votes.
A week ago, Scott Beattie, 32, an assistant Des Moines city attorney, was pulling out of a mall when he almost ran over Pat Buchanan.
"Somebody's got to do something about this," Beattie thought, "somebody
ought to put them to good use." Beattie, a Republican, took out a $90 ad in the Des Moines Register that read: "Attention Presidential candidates. You need votes? I need a new roof. Reroof my house and you have my vote ... Serious inquiries only."
None took Beattie up on his offer, though they weren't above all sorts of other groveling tactics. On Friday, I checked out the Dole 2000 Iowa headquarters in Des Moines, where cameras and posters were all methodically set up to "catch" Dole in the act of calling Iowans to get out the vote. Thank heaven I'm not diabetic, because as soon as she took a seat and started dialing, the sugar was suffocating.
"Skip? Good morning! Elizabeth Dole here. Are you ready for some good ol' barbecue?" she sweet-talked one voter. Dole called the parents of one of her volunteers, a pretty high-schooler, and then put the girl on the line. As a dozen reporters eavesdropped, the girl gushed: "Mrs. Dole is just incredible. She gets me all excited just to hear her talk!"
Most of the rest of the candidates hit the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines that day, to shake hands, pet livestock, admire tractors and sample such delicacies as fried fat, pork, corn dogs, pork, fried ice cream and, of course, pork.
There, flipping pork, was Lamar Alexander -- an eminently decent and qualified man who has visited 64 of Iowa's 99 counties, but just can't
sell the dog food. Beneath his veneer of genteel Southern goodwill, an unmistakably resentful bile is now stirring.
All Bush does is "race to raise money and go to photo ops," Alexander steamed. "What I object to are those who look at this and say, 'Well look at this, they've raised the money so they're president.' I mean what's he going to do in a debate with Gore? He gets a tough question, he says, 'Bring me my pile of money'?"
There was "Pitchfork" Pat Buchanan with his Buchanan brigades. Buchanan spent Friday morning spouting off at news radio WHO 1040's
State Fair booth, mixing his common-folk protectionism with a good healthy dose of outright bigotry. At an event for supporters earlier this week, Buchanan had blamed the farm crisis on those "New York bankers" and "money boys up in New York."
This day, a caller to WHO complained that Mexicans had secured a "foothold" in the United States and seemed well on their way to taking over. In response, Buchanan chatted up his idea of setting up an impenetrable wall of INS officers at the Rio Grande to prevent the "invasion" of more railroad killers -- who, he argued, were representative of the Mexican people. (At almost that very moment, dozens of miles away, Bush was hosting an event for Latino voters.)
There was the disconcertingly awkward Forbes, family in tow. In the last few weeks before this vote, Forbes had dropped some of his pro-life pleas to Christian conservatives and defaulted to his old flat-tax mantra. Indeed, Iowa voters seemed to know only two things about Forbes, based on the commercials that have saturated their airwaves: his flat tax, and the fact that he has five daughters. (The Forbes 2000 site has the ad on Real Video for those interested.)
"I've been the one campaign that has put out real substance," Forbes said when I caught up with him. "That's what people want: substance. They've had enough of spin. They know now that spin is a form of substance abuse. I've been specific; the governor from Texas has been vague."
A pack of younger male reporters followed Forbes around the fairgrounds for some time, at least as interested in Moira Forbes, 20, and Catherine Forbes, 22, as they were in the man mounting a credible challenge to Bush. Moira and Catherine were cute and charming enough, certainly, but their dad's $430 million may also have been an attraction to this band of flatterers.
At one point, a busload of 42 teenage Hatch supporters entered the fair grounds. The Hatchlings, imported from Utah, seemed happy to be anywhere other than the bus where they'd just spent close to 24 hours.
Hatch assured Salon News that the fact that he "can work with Tom Harkin and Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd" and "knows how to make Washington work," was, in the end, going to send him to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Bauer sidled up to a mock straw poll at the FirStar Service Center booth -- where anyone could put a straw in the paper cup of the candidate of his choice -- and jokingly pinched a straw from Bush's cup and put it in his own.
Quayle showed up, trumpeting his experience, with gray hair and golf paunch lending him age if not gravitas. Quayle is pleasant and much more articulate in person than you might expect. He can rattle off numbers and stats, and seems to relish his newfound status as a candidate of heft. The only bewilderment Quayle expressed was how Bauer, Buchanan, Dole, Forbes and Keyes -- none of whom has ever held elected office -- could even entertain the idea that they are somehow qualified for the most important job in the universe.
"Those people who have not been elected, you'll have to ask them why they're really running," Quayle said to Salon News. "Believe me, it's not going to happen." The next day, however, all five finished ahead of Quayle in the straw poll.
"I think he should get out [of the race]," said Kristol, who was Quayle's vice presidential chief of staff. "He's a good man, and he's served the country well, but it'd be better for him to get out now than to soldier on."
By Saturday morning, the candidates were acting nervous. They started downplaying expectations. Dole's people were talking as if the event had no meaning. (Though by the end of the day, they would change their tune -- and start bashing McCain, their closest competitor in the way of a mainstream alternative to Bush.) Bauer said that no matter how hard he'd worked, there was no way of knowing whether it would pay off, because "there's always an attrition rate."
Steve Grubbs, a former state GOP chairman and a failed Senate candidate, agreed: "You never know. People might get up in the morning, and the line's too long, or they decide they've got to work on their lawn."
But as it turned out, more than enough people got up in the morning and came to the conclusion that there was no better place for them to be than standing in line for pork sandwiches served up by unctuous presidential candidates. Crowds flooded both ForbesLand, a field filled with enormous inflatable bouncy rides for kids, and the Bush country-western pavilion.
The Bush event was so large and had so many separate tents with celebrities that when Bush himself finally bounded onto the stage -- to the tune of "God Bless Texas" -- his speech overlapped with that of NFL Hall of Famer Roger Staubach, appearing in the Bush tent next-door.
Staubach's fellow Bush supporters included superkicker Nick Lowery, world champion bass fisherman Johnny Morris, skeet shooting gold medalist Kim Rhode, and country stars Tracy Byrd and Linda Davis. Forbes hired Debby Boone; Alexander had Crystal Gayle and Miss Iowa USA; Hatch shipped in Karl "The Mailman" Malone of the Utah Jazz.
The Dole area was sprinkled with sorority sisters. "She's a woman," said
Lynse Briney, 20, an ISU Gamma Phi Beta, when asked why she supported Dole. "She's a capable woman, a qualified woman."
By contrast, the Bauer area was jammed with seated seniors who looked as if they were attending a church picnic. "This is a song about being sold out to what you believe in," said the singer from Bauer's Christian rock band. Former NFL-er and loose cannon Reggie White, a Bauer man all the way, ran around the fairgrounds trying to get his man's rivals to sign an American Family Association pledge to support "traditional" family values.
While White was trying to marginalize some of America's nontraditional families, Bush was opening his Big Tent to others outside the country's mainstream, at a gathering of beer-swilling Harley riders who had vroomed in from Des Moines. There were about 400 "Bikers for Bush" -- a group led by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., and assisted by two bikers who gave their names as "Viper" and "Bitch."
"I know that he was instrumental in repealing the mandatory helmet law in the state of Texas," explained Don Baker, 43, of Marshalltown. "That was enough for me to come down here and listen to what else he stands for."
By mid-afternoon, the atmosphere inside the Hilton Coliseum was primed for the climactic 13 minutes each allowed for speeches by the candidates -- eight men in gray suits and the one woman in khaki. With pyrotechnical explosions, cheerleaders and the deep bass pumping the "Are you ready for this?" song so popular at NCAA games, the joint was packed and ready for action.
The first speaker, the fiery and somewhat unhinged Keyes, chose as his targets Clinton's moral weaknesses and Bush's $36 million. "My ancestors were bought and sold on the auction block of slavery -- I will not be bought and sold on the auction block of our freedom!" he yelled. Voting for Bush would send the message that "Money is God, God is money, that's what we worship and that's what we serve," Keyes said.
Keyes argued that the federal income tax constitutes a form of slavery. Other candidates, he said, "argue about whether our chains are a little heavier or a little lighter" -- or, in an apparent reference to Forbes, whether "all our chains were of equal weight. I think it's time that we struck off the chains of economic bondage!"
When his allotted time was used up, Keyes kept going, so (per the ground rules) his microphone had to be turned off mid-rant.
Poor Dan Quayle, I thought, seeing that he had to follow the lively Keyes; the poor guy just can't cut a break.
But Quayle gave a surprisingly rousing speech, maybe one of the best of his career. The Clinton administration began like Woodstock 1969, Quayle said, to "great hope, great expectations, a lot of talk about harmony and unity. And it ended up the Woodstock of 1999, trashing our values, trashing our ideals and trashing our White House -- which is not theirs to trash."
But Clinton-bashing, however popular with the crowd, is almost irrelevant at this point in the primary season. For GOP wannabes, Bush-bashing is where it's at. Among policy proposals (a tax cut, congressional term limits) and positions of principle ("The government should not do for the people what the people should do for themselves") Quayle took shot after shot at his former boss' son. George W. Bush's campaign is about raising money, Quayle said, while his own is about raising families. The country can "ill afford another president who needs on-the-job training on foreign policy," he said.
More pointedly, on the "character" front, Quayle snarked, "They say it doesn't really matter what you did before you were 40 years old. Well, I'm proud of what I did before I was 40."
Since Quayle was referring to the persistent rumors about Bush's past, I asked Quayle pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick about the rampant yet entirely unproven reports that Bush had used cocaine. "Cocaine? I have no idea," she said. "The only thing I know he snorts is all the money and all the excitement out of the presidential race."
Steve Forbes' speech was a fiasco of gargantuan proportions. Greeted with horns, explosions, balloons, a Forbes-beam circling the auditorium like the Bat-signal and the strains of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," Forbes strode to the podium ready to perform.
But a huge pile of Forbes' balloons had settled right next to his supporters' seats, forming an irresistible target for all the bored kids who'd been dragged to the event. One after another, they started diving into the stacks of balloons, popping them loudly and harshly throughout Forbes' entire speech, making it all but inaudible (and vaguely symbolic).
Next came Bush, offering nothing new to his vague and squishy appeal. (See the Bush stump speech I outlined back in June.)
Following Bush, Dole projected herself as strong and decisive, no doubt making her speech coach proud. The same qualities that make her seem so unbelievably phony in real life -- her faux charm, deliberate mien, saccharine annunciation and off-putting inability to talk to you like a human being -- work wonders on the stage.
Then, to the once again misused strains of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," Buchanan took the stage. He did his traditional CNN thing, with the added campaign nuance of a racist slam against China's trade barriers, pledging that if the Chinese government doesn't open its markets for Iowa farmers, it wouldn't be able to sell "chopsticks" in this country.
I was sitting next to a Republican official who'd never heard Buchanan on the stump before, and when he delivered his chopsticks line she actually gasped.
Alexander, who will probably get out of the race in the next few days, delivered his perfectly respectable address. Soon enough, the house lights were turned on, the polls closed, the votes were counted, and the spin began.
Forbes said he "showed tonight that substance defeats glitz." (Huh?) Dole's minions were dispatched to tell the media that she had spent less per vote ($73) than the two men who bested her. Bush, if you believe that he only spent $750,000, came in at $101 per vote; Forbes at $406 per vote. Hatch somehow concluded that his last-place finish proved he was "in" the race.
As the sun rose on Sunday morning, hundreds of reporters crowded into the Des Moines airport to be shuttled back home. The Iowa Republican Party counted its money, probably well in excess of the predicted $500,000. Both eighth-place finisher Quayle and boycotter McCain jumped from Sunday morning news show to Sunday morning news show, belittling the importance of the festivity. Bauer said he wanted to go to the beach, but headed for New Hampshire instead, as did Quayle; Bush returned to Texas; Dole hosted a thank-you reception for the sorority girls.
As for the 2.8 million Iowans who didn't have anything to do with the straw poll, it was just another hot day in the country, a perfect day, say, for eating some pork.