Iowa Corn and Little Else

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And the real winner of the Iowa Republican straw poll is . . . the Iowa Republican Party, for snookering nine presidential candidates into spending millions of dollars to participate in a carnival event that means little or nothing to the 2000 election. The party raised more than half a million dollars for itself by charging $25 a head for participants, who aside from “voting” were fed and entertained in candidate headquarters tents. George W. Bush paid $43,500 for the choice location of his tent; Steve Forbes had air conditioning and French doors. The campaigns also paid the entry fees of the nearly 24,000 participants at the Iowa State University field house, where the voting was held Saturday.

Bush, who “won” with about a third of the vote, solemnly proclaimed the straw poll was a “grass-roots exercise in democracy.” The corn in Ames that night was as high as an elephant’s eye.

Almost every candidate tried to spin the results so that he or she had won from some aspect, or at least exceeded expectations. But in no way could former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander explain his sixth-place finish. He dropped out of the GOP race Monday. Sen. John McCain of Arizona won by not participating and thus not risking anything. He called the straw poll a scam, and it was.


Bush was not quite the winner he seemed to be because he did not blow out the field. Forbes finished a strong second by spending the most money. Elizabeth Dole was third with a relatively small effort. The campaign staffs said their poll efforts would help them build the organizations needed to compete again in Iowa in January, when state caucuses allocate the nation’s first delegates to the GOP National Convention. But some participants, partying to the singing of Debbie Boone and Vic Damone, indicated that candidate loyalty was thinner than the barbecue sauce.

The event did little even to illuminate what the candidates think, beyond the content of their stock speeches. Bush now needs to earn his front-runner status by debating the other candidates and talking about real issues such as Social Security, gun control and HMO reform. Many Republicans have rushed to the Bush camp, hungry for a winner who can recapture the White House. If there was any message in Ames for Bush it is that he will not win the nomination by default. He’ll have to work for it.