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Politics 88 : GOP Voters Share Moment of Limelight

IOWA'S ACTIVISTS: One of an Occasional Series on the People Who Will Do the Choosing in the First Major Event of the Presidential Campaign. Today: The Republicans

February 09, 1988|JOHN BALZAR | Times Political Writer

MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa — Around 8 p.m. Monday, the campaign for President changed.

As the first real winners and losers of 1988 emerged, the celebrated Iowa caucus ceased to command the undivided interest of a nation and its 13 men who would be President.

Suddenly, the pigs could rest easy. The barnyards again belonged to them. No more interview requests stacked up on the desk of a local fundamentalist minister. The chairman of the town bank was free to count money instead of caucus voters.

Goodby, Iowa.

Here in the central part of the state, in one of Iowa's 2,487 precincts, Republicans gathered and spent their last hours in the limelight this way:

"These polls are just a challenge as far as I'm concerned," Vice President George Bush declares gamely during a midday visit on Sunday.

Keeps Organization Intact

Bush has maintained a political organization in Marshalltown for eight years, but he is 14 points behind Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, according to the latest poll by the Des Moines Register. And Pat Robertson looks to be breathing down his neck.

Bush clips his stump speech short. "I just want to shake as many hands as I can," he says, reaching into Marshalltown with both arms.

The city of 25,000 is an hour's drive up a snow-swept two-lane from the network television anchor booths and the campaign headquarters of Des Moines.

During the last five months, Republicans here in the 5th Ward, 1st Precinct--or Five/One as they call it--shared their perspective on the unfolding campaign in a series of dispatches in The Times.

On Monday night, in 15-degree cold with a light dusting of snow on the ground, they came together at Miller Junior High for the heartland tradition of political caucuses.

George Bush swept Five/One in 1980--receiving 62 votes, more than twice as many as Ronald Reagan's 30. Bob Dole was a candidate but received not a single vote here back then.

'How Many Will Show Up?'

This time, the vice president's campaign set a goal of getting 98 Bush voters to the caucus. Precinct captain Kurt Jackson, a young businessman, says he has obtained commitments from 137 voters. But as the sun went down Monday, he wondered: "How many will show up?"

A washboard band plays patriotic songs to greet the arrival of Five/One and the 11 other Marshalltown GOP precinct caucuses. All assemble at the schoolhouse. Crammed together in the auditorium, the Marshalltown Republicans hear one final round of exhortations Monday before breaking into separate precinct groups.

Thomas P. Kemp addresses the massed Republicans on behalf of his brother, New York Rep. Jack Kemp. Pierre du Pont appears for his father, former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV.

Former evangelist broadcaster Pat Robertson brings the biggest cheers with a cameo appearance.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I am not a politician," Robertson says. "There is no special-interest group that has its hooks into me."

Has Hard-Working Minister

Robertson's campaign is believed to be well-organized in Five/One, in part from the work of 32-year-old local minister Kerry Jech. Two quotas for Five/One have come down from Robertson headquarters in Des Moines--first 88 and then 100.

"That's way high. We can't get that many," Jech says on the eve of the vote. But surveying the Robertson buttons massing at the junior high, Jech feels his campaign will hold its own this night.

Speaking for Dole is Kansas Gov. Mike Hayden. He raises a favorite and familiar theme. "Bob Dole grew up in a small town much like your town," Hayden says.

Dole's campaign has established a goal of bringing 65 voters to the caucus.

At 7:10 p.m., the time has come.

In the basement band room, the Five/One voters gather at last for their work.

A total of 115 show up--well down from the 158 of eight years ago. Local political leaders for weeks suspected the 1988 campaign peaked without ever reaching down and tugging deep emotions.

A perfunctory selection of precinct captains and a secretary is followed by the distribution of ballots.

Everyone is given a heavy sheet of perforated paper. The top is a sign-up card. The bottom is a ballot listing just the names of the candidates, to be marked in pen.

Vote by Secret Ballot

Unlike Democrats, Republicans in Iowa conduct their vote by secret ballot.

On this Monday night, the sound of democracy is the soft tearing of perforations, separating ballots from the sheets.

Stillness settles over the room as the ballots are counted on a corner table.

The tally is announced:

Dole 47, Robertson 30, Bush 28, Du Pont 2 and Kemp 6. One person voted undecided and one ballot is indecipherable.

The three-year campaign is over.

The time is 8 p.m.

Strangely, there is no cheering, no whoops, no groans.

Bush and Dole supporters agree on some reasons for the outcome between these two Washington insiders:

"I think a lot of people don't think old George can pull it off in the fall," says Main Street insurance man Don Diamond, a Dole coordinator.

Not 'Enough Flash'

Kurt Jackson, a Bush coordinator, says: "I'm afraid Bush doesn't have enough flash."

Despite a second-place finish, Robertson backers are privately disappointed. "It's great, but I can't believe they (Dole backers) beat us by so much," the Rev. Jech says.

Caucus housekeeping business drones on for nearly an hour. Singly and in small groups, the voters of Five/One drift into the night.

The scouts of American democracy pointed the way as they saw it. And then they faded into the Midwestern landscape for four more years.

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