Ever since Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole took command of the Republican presidential race, his rivals have been waiting for him to make a mistake.
This past weekend, he finally did. No, he didn’t lose his famous temper. But he did lose face by allowing Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas to tie him in the Iowa straw poll here. How Dole and his challengers respond to this startling result in the next few weeks should determine whether it turns out to be just a bump in the Kansan’s road to the GOP nomination or a major turning point in the race.
“We are not going to change our strategy,” Dole campaign manager Scott Reed said as the last straw votes were being tallied late Saturday night.
He would have been foolish to say anything else, because any abrupt transformation of the Dole candidacy would be read as a sign of panic.
But what is clear is that for Dole to shift gears even gradually will be difficult. That’s because the problems that caused him to flop in the straw poll are linked to two fundamental aspects of his candidacy--his front-runner status and his position as Senate Republican leader. Both are decidedly mixed blessings.
Being a front-runner helps a candidate raise money and build support and endows a campaign with stability and prestige. But “front-runneritis,” as the Ames results vividly showed, also can foster complacency among a candidate’s managers.
Thus, only a few days before the straw poll embarrassment, Dole strategists were so confident he would come in first that they were focusing on the presumed race for second place, speculating that conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who ultimately finished third, might beat out Gramm for that spot.
Of course, Gramm himself had something to do with the outcome of the contest, which ended with the Texan and Dole each taking 24% of the 10,000 votes cast--tantamount to a defeat for Dole. Gramm’s campaign worked hard and spent big to get his supporters to the competition. Informed estimates put the amount the Gramm forces spent on direct mail alone at about $500,000.
But Dole has plenty of money and plenty of backers in Iowa, enough to more than match Gramm if he had chosen. He also has on his side four-term Republican Gov. Terry E. Branstad, whose power and influence extend throughout the state GOP.
“Dole’s support is very wide in Iowa,” said another candidate, who asked that he not be identified. “Once he saw what Gramm was up to, he should have pulled out the stops and beat him.”
Instead, Dole strategists decided not to increase their initial financial commitment to the straw poll even as it became clear that the Gramm camp was going full tilt on an event in which the only requirement for participating was paying $25 at the door--regardless of whether one lived in Iowa or was even registered to vote.
“We didn’t go out and buy a lot of tickets with campaign money,” Dole said on CBS-TV’s “Face the Nation” program Sunday. Referring to the 1996 Iowa caucuses, an event confined to state residents and at which actual national convention delegates will be picked, he added: “We’re going to save our resources for the main event next February.”
But he conceded: “To some extent, I think there was some complacency” in preparing for the straw poll.
Dole’s position as Senate leader also produces debits and credits. His work on Capitol Hill is a sure-fire attention-getter. But it also makes the prospects of his candidacy hostage to Republican legislative fortunes on Capitol Hill.
For instance, the Senate logjam that has slowed key conservative legislation passed by the House has made Dole an easy target for some rivals. California Gov. Pete Wilson, in his speech to the activists who packed the Iowa State University auditorium, where the straw poll was held, ticked off a bleak status report on measures that are “stalled in the Senate” or were “killed in the Senate.”
“If your child brought that report card home from school . . . he wouldn’t be getting a promotion,” Wilson said, adding this none-too-subtle dig at Dole: “A legislator with a record like that shouldn’t be promoted either.”
Another consequence of Dole’s combined status as front-runner and legislative leader is an inclination not to rock the boat or engage in hard-edged rhetoric--an inclination that fosters a rather bland message.
If Dole’s style and message seem ill-tuned to the turbulent mood of at least part of the electorate, he can find consolation in the notion that Gramm may not be an ideal fit either.
Although the Texan proclaimed that the straw poll results showed that Iowans are “ready for change,” many question whether Gramm himself can assume the role of outsider any better than Dole does. Gramm, like Dole, is a Capitol insider, having served since 1979 in both House and Senate.
And while Dole has been Republican all his political life, Gramm is an ex-Democrat. To some, that may mean he’s been tarred with the brush of both parties.