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Iowa Caucuses Lose Popularity as Abuses Grow

September 13, 1987|JOHN BALZAR | Times Political Writer

DES MOINES — Iowa is conspicuous, pampered, coveted and indulged as the blue-ribbon prize at the start of the American presidential election.

To the list, you can now add another word about Iowa: berated.

The celebrated Feb. 8 precinct caucuses here, traditionally the beginning of the presidential election season, mean that Iowa's politicians, its problems, its way of life all are lavishly attended by would-be leaders of the free world.

But the exhausting duration of the Iowa campaign (Missouri Democrat Richard A. Gephardt started stumping here over two years ago and Vice President George Bush has been grooming an organization in the state since 1979, for instance) and the seemingly irresistible temptation for Iowans to cash in on the process have given rise to an enthusiastic rump group of caucus bashers.

Prickly Account

"Charade on Main Street," was the headline atop a prickly account of the Iowa process in the New Republic magazine. "Far Too Much Ado About Little Iowa," said Newsweek. "Why Iowa Is Bad for American Politics," said U.S. News & World Report.

"We are beginning to suffer from delusions of grandeur . . . we're abusing the process, not maliciously, but still abusing it," said George Wittgraf, a small-town Iowa lawyer who is running Bush's campaign here.

The list of complaints and complainers is diverse and seemingly growing, including campaigns, news media and academics.

One frequently heard lament is about what can be called the Iowa campaign shakedown. Some political activists clearly want more than a chance to hear speeches and judge the mettle of the candidates. They demand that the presidential candidates help finance local campaigns as well.

Just Saturday, the state Republican Party cleverly hoped to pull itself out of debt by staging a fund-raising straw poll. For the price of $25 apiece, activists were invited to the community of Ames, north of Des Moines, where they could "vote" for their favorite candidate.

Most Republican candidates reluctantly committed their organizations to making the straw poll a real competition to protect themselves against the damaging publicity of a big bellwether "loss."

'No Choice' on Straw Polls

"We have no choice," said Marlene Elwell, Midwestern regional director for the candidacy of the Rev. Pat Robertson. "The party has blown it way out of proportion. It is a monster for us."

Robertson surprised his Republican competitors, finishing first in the pay-to-play straw poll, showing off a previously untested but exuberant Iowa political organization. The five leading Republican candidates all converged on the event in Ames, raising the stakes.

Robertson won with 1,293 of 3,843 votes cast. He was followed by Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) with 958 votes, Bush with 864, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) with 520 and former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV with 160. The remaining votes were scattered among minor candidates.

"I'm surprised and I'm impressed," state Republican Party Chairman Mike W. Mahaffey said. "He's going to have to be taken seriously."

Beverly Tauke, Iowa spokeswoman for Dole, said: "It's been a mystery what Robertson could do. This is a pretty good indication."

At a late-night press conference Robertson said: "This is enthusiasm like I've never seen. . . . It was my impression that if I had a good second or third place, it would be a victory. It was inconceivable that we would win."

Democrats Complain, Too

Democrats have agreed not to have straw polls this election, but they too complain about financial demands from Iowans. For example, Donald Avenson, Democratic Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives, said earlier this year that he wanted the Democratic candidates to raise $50,000 apiece to help elect Democrats to the Legislature, or he would withhold his endorsement.

Shortly thereafter he said he was exaggerating. But that didn't stop William P. Dixon, campaign manager for former presidential candidate Gary Hart, from describing Iowa as "the home of sophisticated, greedy political leaders who threaten national political candidates with regularity and with crudeness in a quest for political money."

"Greedy politicians . . . using blackmail and threats trade their support for campaign contributions," Dixon said after Hart withdrew in May. "This should be the last time Iowa should be permitted to go first."

Iowa politicians say that calling old-fashioned back scratching "blackmail" is unfair and naive.

But there is no denying that voters here can get carried away in demanding time and ministrations from candidates.

Wittgraf acknowledged that some supporters are disappointed they do not get as many well-wishing birthday and anniversary phone calls from Bush as they did back in 1979 before he became vice president.

Iowans still receive gifts, notes and flowers, said Wittgraf, "but a level of expectation exists that is impossible to meet."

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