DES MOINES — Kansas Sen. Bob Dole won a big victory in the opening round of the 1988 Republican presidential campaign in Iowa on Monday night, but former television evangelist Pat Robertson scored the biggest surprise by finishing second and relegating Vice President George Bush to a dismal third-place finish.
"We got whipped," George Bush Jr., the vice president's oldest son, acknowledged as the startling returns came in from the nearly 2,500 precinct caucuses around the state where Iowa Republicans expressed their preference for their party's 1988 presidential nominee.
And the results raised serious questions about the ability of Bush, the longtime leader in the race for the nomination, to bounce back next Tuesday in the New Hampshire primary, where until now the polls have given him a comfortable lead.
Creating further uncertainty in the GOP competition was the enhanced status of Robertson, who, as a result of his showing here, has to be considered a formidable presence at least through the Southern regional primaries on Super Tuesday, March 8.
Nearly complete returns put New York Rep. Jack Kemp in fourth place, ahead of former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV. Former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., who abandoned his campaign effort here last fall, was last.
With 2,439 precincts out of a total of 2,487--or 98%--reporting, these were the returns: Dole 40,627 (37%); Robertson 26,711 (25%); Bush 20,160 (19%); Kemp 12,065 (11%); Du Pont 7,970 (7%); Haig 412 (0%); No Preference 782 (1%).
These results were based on a straw poll of caucus participants and did not directly indicate the potential makeup of Iowa's 37-member delegation to the Republican National Convention, which will be determined at county, district and state conventions between now and June 25.
Nevertheless, the results here were considered to be of great symbolic importance because the caucuses represented the first opportunity for Republican voters to play a direct role in the selection of convention delegates. Moreover, the campaign here had involved all the Republican contenders except Haig in major efforts.
Dole's victory here had been expected because of polls showing him ahead, but his margin of 12 points over Robertson and 18 over Bush was even bigger than the surveys had suggested.
Nevertheless, Dole was relatively restrained in his victory statement, perhaps because he was as surprised as nearly everyone else by the strength of Robertson's showing here.
Dole called the result "a rather clear-cut victory." But then, he added: "I've been saying for a long time it's a two-person race. I thought it was going to be (against) George Bush. I don't know what this means."
"I think it puts a whole new face on it, at least out of Iowa," Dole said of the upcoming primaries. "We haven't talked about it. We thought Bush would finish second."
When asked if he was worried that Robertson may have entered the ranks of top two contenders, Dole said: "As long as I'm one of the two men in the race, I don't care who it is."
'Not the End of Bush'
Richard B. Wirthlin, Dole's pollster and a longtime adviser to President Reagan, said that the result here will clearly narrow the gap between Dole and Bush, who has been the front-runner in the GOP race since its beginning. But he added: "This is not the end of Bush."
Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Dole's chief supporter in the state, called the results "a major upset." But he contended that, despite Robertson's strong showing here, the contest remains "a Dole-Bush race."
"We're still 20 points behind," he said, referring to the big lead Bush enjoyed in national polls before the Iowa vote.
Grassley was skeptical about whether Robertson could perform as well in primary states, where his organizational strength will not give him the advantage it represents in caucus states such as Iowa.
"Robertson's main contribution has been the wounding of Vice President Bush," Grassley said. "We'll see what else he can do."
Robertson was understandably jubilant. "This is the test that I have looked for to see if the base that was supporting me could indeed be broadened," he said. "And I think the people have given a loud assent to the fact that I am reaching out to all Americans. I won't just be a candidate of some special interest group, but I'm going to be a candidate for all the people."
Then he declared: "Coming out of this caucus night, I am now the conservative candidate."
Kerry Moody, Robertson's spokesman in Iowa, agreed on the damage to the vice president, saying that Bush had been "crippled" by the Iowa vote. "But he can rebound, and he's still the front-runner nationally," Moody said.
Iowa 'Behind Us'