Let the games begin

The front-runners still look strong, but among the GOP, the real question may be who's on third.

Published January 24, 2000 6:00PM (EST)

It all comes down to this. The candidates are squeezing the last bit
of life
from their campaigns, calling, precinct-walking, running ads and making
appearances. On Saturday, the Des Moines Register published its last pre-caucus
which showed Al Gore
surging to 56 percent of the vote and Bill Bradley sinking to
28 percent. On the Republican side, George W. Bush's
support dipped 2 points to 43 percent while Steve Forbes remains
solidly in second place with 20 percent.

In what has shaped up to be the real race -- the race
for third place -- there's a statistical dead heat between Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer and John McCain, with Orrin Hatch
stuck in the back of the bus with just 1 percent.

But there are still a significant number of
undecided voters (11 percent of Republicans and 13 percent of Democrats) and the weather forecast is
still unclear,
so surprises aren't out of the question. For Keyes, his unexpected surge couldn't come at a better time. The conservative commentator finished sixth in Iowa in 1996, but Iowans are now braving the cold to come hear him. Is the Keyes surge a harbinger of a huge upset? Probably not. It just sheds more light on the peculiarities of the Iowa Caucuses themselves.
"Realistically, I don't think he can do it beyond here," said John W. Schmaltz, a political science professor at North Iowa Area Community

The Washington Post provides a full play-by-play on
just how these caucuses work. The arcane procedure has been scrutinized and criticized,
especially by folks in New
As former Granite State Gov. John Sununu once said, "The people of Iowa pick
corn. The people of New Hampshire pick presidents."

Given the huge leads that Bush and Gore seem to have, the important questions are how well
Bradley will fare, especially after the Des Moines
Register's endorsement
of him over the weekend, and the final standings in the GOP. Bush and
Gore are measuring their results not by whether they win, of course, but by how much. They
hope that decisive victories in Iowa will provide momentum for next Tuesday's New Hampshire
primary, where, the latest
Los Angeles Times poll
shows, Gore retains a solid lead and Bush is neck-and-neck with

As candidates descend on New Hampshire Tuesday, this week will illustrate just how much Iowa is
McCain has completely ignored the caucuses, not even bothering to organize his key
constituency of veterans. Even at this stage people are starting to ask about the role of the
also-ran candidates.
Be sure that they'll push for some leverage on everything from
vice presidential candidates to platform planks.

The question of what the also-rans will do with their political capital is particularly
relevant for the GOP race. They have actively pursued opportunities to appear socially
conservative on such issues as abortion and gay rights, most
recently attending a rally Saturday night titled the "Presidential Rally for Family, Faith &
Freedom," focused on
attacking pornography and gays.
The trailing trio of Forbes, Bauer and Keyes all gave
speeches with substantive statements of support for the rally's issues.

The weekend provided a particularly clear picture of how difficult the trailing
candidates could make things for Bush. On Saturday, the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade
decision, Bush was confronted with still more questions about his
position on abortion.

He has managed to avoid making it a high-profile campaign issue, but
with the other Republican primary candidates wielding the issue like a billy club, Bush was
prompted to define his abortion stance. He dodged and weaved until he was finally prompted to
say that he supported the Republican Party's abortion plank and once again confirmed that he
would oppose abortion as president. He also said that he wouldn't create an abortion litmus
test for judicial nominees and wouldn't support a constitutional amendment banning the process
because the votes aren't there to pass it.

He tried his best to avoid making abortion a hotly
contested campaign issue in order to appear as moderate
as possible.
That could still prove far from easy. In addition to attacks on the subject
from Keyes, Forbes, et al., he can also look forward to questions generated by two upcoming
abortion cases scheduled to be ruled on this term by the U.S. Supreme Court.

With friends like these ...

And what happens after Iowa? Monday night's vote may whittle down the GOP field some, and provide some clue as to whether Bradley is coming or going.
With poll numbers in New Hampshire as irregular as Bradley's heartbeat, William Safire offers
a blueprint for the next Bradley resurgence. As Safire writes, "The best advice for lefties
comes from righties, because we're not emotionally involved."

By Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

MORE FROM Max Garrone

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