Texas Gov. George W. Bush won a fiercely contested Republican straw poll here Saturday night, a result that did more to reaffirm than reshape the GOP presidential race.
No delegates were at stake in the mock election. But the symbolic contest became a closely watched test of early strength for the frenzied GOP field, drawing 23,685 voters who lined up seven deep to cast ballots in the Iowa State University basketball arena.
Bush led the field with 7,418 votes, nearly triple the number won by the top finishers in the 1995 straw poll. But he failed to overwhelm the field as decisively as he had in early polls and in the contest for campaign cash.
Millionaire publisher Steve Forbes, who spent lavishly in the weeks leading up to the vote, lagged in second with 20.8% of the vote, or 10.5 percentage points behind Bush’s 31.3%. Elizabeth Hanford Dole, the former American Red Cross president whose campaign might have been threatened if she finished poorly, instead may have reinvigorated her effort with a solid third, drawing 14.4% of the vote.
“The best result for Bush would have been for everyone to say, ‘The election is over,’ ” said GOP strategist Rich Galen. “Clearly that didn’t happen.”
Two social conservatives finished next: Gary Bauer drew 8.9% for fourth place, and Patrick J. Buchanan 7.3% for fifth. The big losers of the evening may have been former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who had staked his debt-ridden campaign on a strong showing but could manage no better than sixth, at 6%; and former Vice President Dan Quayle, who finished a weak eighth, behind three other competitors for the religious conservative vote that he has targeted. Radio broadcaster Alan Keyes finished seventh, with 4.6% to Quayle’s 3.9%. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah finished just behind Quayle, with 2.4%.
Apart from the danger to Alexander and Quayle, the results appeared unlikely to significantly reconfigure the Republican race. The contest leaves Bush as front-runner but not in such a decisive manner as to discourage his rivals.
Forbes’ showing led him to suggest the contest is now a two-man race, but Dole, on a shoestring budget, finished close enough to gain renewed optimism.
“If you put it on a dollar-per-vote basis, Elizabeth Dole trounced George Bush and Steve Forbes,” said Ari Fleischer, Dole’s communications director.
Nor did the results do anything to resolve the contest between Buchanan and Bauer for leadership of the religious conservative movement. Both men finished strongly enough to sustain their campaigns, which could make it difficult for Forbes to consolidate conservative voters against Bush.
Indeed, immediately after the event, Forbes called on conservatives to “unite behind me” against “the Washington establishment.”
Bush pronounced himself pleased. At a raucous victory rally, an exuberant Bush proclaimed, “We shattered every record. . . . We have more than accomplished what we set out to do.” Bush’s campaign had set a goal of attracting 5,000 voters.
The fact that they exceeded that goal yet still attracted a smaller share of the vote than many expected testified to the scale of the event. Nearly twice as many people voted as in the straw poll four years ago, when Bob Dole, Elizabeth Dole’s husband and then a senator from Kansas, fought to a draw with Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.
A Large Crowd and a Big Bull’s-Eye
This year, the crowd was so large that the fire marshal was forced to lock the doors.
Filling seats throughout the cavernous arena, the Republicans heard nine GOP candidates call for smaller government, tax cuts, more defense spending and an end to legalized abortion. But the most pointed exchanges came as opponents took aim at Bush.
Without ever mentioning Bush directly, his rivals--one after another--targeted his scant political resume, overwhelming advantages in fund-raising and establishment endorsements.
“Never again will we let . . . big money and the Beltway elite tell us who we can nominate for president of the United States,” thundered Buchanan.
“My vision is not raising money,” insisted Quayle. “My vision is raising . . . our standards.”
“This selection should not be about raising money,” echoed Alexander. “It should be about raising farm prices, about raising standards and about raising children.”
As he has throughout the campaign, Bush turned the other cheek, praising his opponents as “fine candidates.”
Most analysts expected Bush and Forbes to finish one-two, and signs of frustration were evident from supporters of the other contenders as they spoke. Scattered boos erupted when Bush declared in his speech: “I do not run polls to tell me what to think.”
A spontaneous show of discontent came when Forbes took the stage amid a massive balloon drop and fireworks display, which filled the hall with an acrid haze. Supporters of the other candidates responded with a form of populist protest, literally bursting Forbes’ balloons--drowning out the early part of his speech.
Only President Clinton came close to drawing as much fire. Buchanan received the evening’s loudest burst of applause by announcing an unlikely first act as chief executive: As the nation’s top law enforcement officer, he would turn to the ex-president and declare, “Sir, you have the right to remain silent . . . .”
Before the speeches began, free-spending candidates turned the grassy mall outside the basketball arena into a virtual tent city, with a midway to rival the State Fair 30 miles away in Des Moines. Smoke from ubiquitous barbecues blended with the strains of country music billowing from candidates’ hospitality headquarters.
There were hot-air balloons, clowns, face-painting booths and enough red, white and blue to furnish a flag factory. Bush had one huge tent for music and another for food; Forbes matched him with two tents and raised him with a sprawling play area for children.
Color-Coded Attendees Show Their Support
Under brilliant afternoon sunshine, elbow-to-elbow crowds plied the scene in color-coded candidate-wear: blue for Bush, red for Alexander and electric orange for Forbes. Young women from sororities bustled through the crowd with Elizabeth Dole buttons. It was perhaps one measure of the candidates’ relative strength that, as the speeches were about to begin inside the hall late Saturday afternoon, Alexander’s aides were packing up his booth while Bush and Forbes were serving turn-away crowds in their tents. (In a bit of culinary one-upmanship, Bush laid out a second buffet after the program ended.)
Inside the arena, the candidates offered modified versions of their stump speeches, each emphasizing signature proposals. Quayle touted his call for a 30% across-the-board cut in income tax rates; Bauer promised to pursue a ban on abortion and drew loud applause by pledging to end normal trading relations with China.
Buchanan, arriving to the beat of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” delivered a feisty denunciation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and abortion rights. Bush, giving a somewhat lackluster speech, called for greater cooperation between government and faith-based charities, promised to cut taxes and vowed to partially privatize Social Security by creating personal investment accounts.
Dole described herself as a “courageous conservative” and focused more than any other candidate on education.
The straw poll was conceived by the Iowa Republican Party as a way to raise money and increase membership. To participate, voters were required to buy $25 tickets, though most campaigns were happy to pick up the tab: Virtually every ballot was bought and paid for.
Indeed, the contenders poured millions of dollars and tens of thousands of staff-hours into the competition, crisscrossing Iowa with election eve intensity.
The results have no direct bearing on the Iowa caucuses. Participants who supported one candidate are perfectly free to turn around and back someone else in the actual voting in January that will allocate Iowa’s delegates to the GOP national nominating convention next year.
Still, the outcome was hardly inconsequential. Candidates finishing near the bottom faced the risk that their money could dry up.
Further, the straw poll vote offered Bush rivals their first opportunity to pierce the aura of inevitability surrounding the Texas governor, who shared a stage with his opponents Saturday for the first time since launching his candidacy.
The fierce competition for votes in Ames offered a pointed reminder that, even here in the heartland, money matters.
By the estimation of his opponents, Forbes alone spent $2 million or more on a platinum-plated campaign that binged on TV advertising and glossy mailings. Bush aides insisted they spent only $750,000, with the other campaigns far behind.
Also on Saturday’s ballot were three non-contestants: Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who refused to compete, blasting the event as a “scam”; Rep. John R. Kasich of Ohio, who last month quit the presidential contest; and Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, who quit the Republican Party and plans to pursue the nomination of the U.S. Taxpayers Party.
McCain finished with 83 votes, and Kasich and Smith attracted single-digit support.
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Iowa Straw Poll
Results of voting Saturday at the 1999 Iowa GOP straw poll in Ames:
George W. Bush: 7,418
Steve Forbes: 4,921
Elizabeth Hanford Dole: 3,410
Gary Bauer: 2,114
Patrick J. Buchanan: 1,719
Lamar Alexander: 1,428
Alan Keyes: 1,101
Dan Quayle: 916
Orin G. Hatch: 558
Three non-contestants received a total of 100 votes.
Percentage breakdown of the voting: