DES MOINES — Vice President George Bush, still smarting from an embarrassing loss in a recent presidential preference straw poll of Iowa Republicans, admitted Wednesday that he had suffered a "good swift kick in the tail" that would reinvigorate his campaign.
"They've unleashed a tiger now," Bush said during a hastily arranged daylong campaign swing designed to whip up enthusiasm for his candidacy in the Feb. 8 preference caucuses.
Bush, long considered the front-runner in the Republican nomination sweepstakes, was shocked two weeks ago when supporters of television evangelist Pat Robertson flooded a GOP fund-raiser in Ames to stack the outcome of a straw poll taken during the event. Robertson led the unscientific survey, in which participants had to pay $25 a head to participate, with 34% of the vote. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas came in second with 25% and Bush was third with 23%.
Although Robertson trailed both Bush and Dole in the Des Moines Register's recent Iowa Poll--a broader, scientific gauge of Republican opinion--the Robertson coup in Ames clearly has the vice president's campaign rattled.
Bush aides sought to put the best face on the loss, maintaining that it demonstrated the motivational and organizational prowess of Robertson among fundamentalist Christian supporters rather than any widespread disenchantment with the vice president. Still, they said the setback had roused Bush supporters from complacency while persuading the candidate himself to pay more attention to Iowa.
"It's not panicking, but it's prudent," insisted Lee Atwater, national campaign manager for Bush. "In the long term, the best thing that happened to this campaign was getting a glass of cold water thrown at us in Ames."
Richard Bond, the campaign's political director, was recently dispatched to Des Moines from the Washington headquarters to keep a closer eye on day-to-day operations in Iowa. Aides said Bush and his family members also would be spending more time in the state than had been previously planned.
"We believe there is a direct correlation between how well we do in Iowa and how often he is here in Iowa," Bond said. One Iowa campaign official admitted the strategy was a response to grumbling from some Iowa Republicans about being ignored by Bush. "There's a perception, good or bad, that the vice president is hiding behind the podium," acknowledged George Wittgraf, Bush's Iowa state campaign manager.
Wednesday's trip, squeezed into the vice president's schedule only a day before he was to start a 10-day state visit to Europe, was designed to counteract that perception and show just what a regular guy Bush was. He lunched with Iowa political reporters and huddled with campaign workers, but also joined a high school cross-country team for a two-mile run (his time: 17 minutes, 36 seconds) and then shot baskets with 4-foot, 8 1/2-inch Chris (Boomer) Nesbit on the driveway hoop at his suburban home ("Boomer beat me head-on-head, but it's not fair, it was his court.")
Wearing a blue sport shirt with the vice presidential seal stitched on the left breast, Bush then went to the home of another supporter to take part in brief services for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. Bush's host began the ceremonies well before sundown, the traditional starting time, to accommodate the vice president's schedule. "They're Reformed Jews," Wittgraf jokingly explained.
Earlier, Bush discussed his reaction to the straw poll as he fielded questions on a radio call-in show.
"It's like getting a good swift kick in the tail during an exhibition game before the season starts," said the vice president, who said he had learned a lesson from the straw poll.
"They've unleashed a tiger now. . . . We are going to work like we've never been heard of in this state. So take a couple on the chops and clean up your act after the exhibition season and win in the regular season."
Responding to a questioner, Bush said some supporters think he has been hobbled by too close an association with the policies of President Reagan. "I don't think of loyalty as a character flaw, I think of it as a strength," Bush said. "But I've sublimated my own identity."
Next month, Bush said, he will begin outlining programs that would gradually ease him from Reagan's shadow. "I'm not going to do what some have done and jump away from the President and criticize him," he said. "But I am entitled to say, 'Here's what I want for education . . . here's what I'll add to spending.' . . . It's going to be emphasis rather than a radical swing away from an Administration that frankly has brought a lot of good things for this country."