Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who enjoys a 10- to 15-point lead over Vice President George Bush in most Iowa Republican presidential preference polls, said Saturday that the race here had tightened into a "dead heat."
Campaigning at a veterans' convention, Dole even talked of having to "catch up" to Bush before the key Feb. 8 caucuses.
Meanwhile, former Labor Secretary William E. Brock III, Dole's national campaign chairman, said internal campaign polls had registered a "very substantial jump" in support for Bush after his bitter televised confrontation Monday with CBS anchorman Dan Rather.
But it was unclear whether Dole's big edge actually had melted away or whether his campaign was just engaging in the time-honored political game of lowering expectations to build a fire under supporters and make a caucus day victory seem more spectacular.
If Dole's assertions are true, it would mark a significant turnaround for Bush, who has been campaigning as the underdog in Iowa despite holding a substantial lead over Dole and other GOP challengers in nationwide opinion surveys.
At the same time, it would represent a serious blow to Dole. He has staked his campaign here on his rural, Midwestern roots and his reputation as a champion of agriculture in Congress. Aides have long acknowledged that Dole's presidential drive would quickly fizzle if he failed to win in Iowa.
"The race has tightened up a lot on the Republican side," Dole said as he wore a blue VFW cap with the word Kansas stitched on the side. "I think its an uphill battle but we're going to do the very best we can to hang in there and win this thing. . . . I assume it's probably a dead heat right now."