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Democratic Contest Narrows : Iowa Leaves GOP Race in Turmoil

February 10, 1988|ROBERT SHOGAN | Times Political Writer

DES MOINES — The first serious skirmish of the 1988 presidential campaign here in Iowa has thrown the hitherto orderly contest for the GOP nomination into turmoil and increased the chances of it becoming a prolonged and divisive struggle.

The big questions are whether Vice President George Bush can recover from his humiliating third-place finish, whether the winner, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, can take over Bush's front-runner role and whether former television evangelist Pat Robertson, who finished a surprising second, can match his Iowa success in a broad-based primary.

On the other hand, as candidates in both parties girded for next Tuesday's first-in-the-nation presidential primary in New Hampshire, the results of Monday night's vote here seem to have put the Democratic competition into sharper focus.

Two-Man Contest

A strong possibility is emerging that the primary will turn into mainly a one-on-one contest between the Iowa victor, Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.

Dukakis finished third here but has long held a commanding lead in polls in New Hampshire.

But the most dramatic change was in the Republican contest, which has long been defined by the commanding lead Bush held in the polls, almost everywhere in the country except here in Iowa.

It had been expected that Bush might lose in this state to Dole. But most observers expected that the margin would be no greater than 5 to 10 points and that Bush would quickly recover in New Hampshire, where polls have shown him to be well ahead of Dole.

But Bush lost to Dole by a 2-1 margin, and even more embarrassing, trailed behind Robertson, contravening all prior conventional wisdom.

"Iowa destroyed the assumption of inevitability around which the Bush candidacy has been built," said David Keene, senior political consultant to Dole.

"Today the whole world has changed politically for Republicans," he added.

Bush's strategists sought to alibi their defeat by blaming the result in large part on the relative unpopularity of President Reagan's policies here. "If you liked Ronald Reagan you supported Bush, and if you didn't you supported Dole," said Rich Bond, Bush's national political director. "And there were twice as many of them as there were of us."

Dislike Reagan Performance

And this contention was borne out in part by findings of a Times exit poll of caucus-goers that showed that one-third of Dole's supporters disapproved of Reagan's job performance, but only one-tenth of Bush's did.

But polling by the Dole campaign suggested more fundamental problems with Bush's candidacy that did not bode well for his political future. When voters were asked which candidate could make a difference as President, according to Dole pollster Richard B. Wirthlin, Dole held a 25% advantage over Bush. And on the question of which would make a stronger leader, Dole edged Bush by 30%.

Bush was holding on to the hope that history would repeat itself--that, like Reagan in 1980, he would follow an Iowa loss with a New Hampshire victory. Ironically, it was Bush who was the Iowa victor that year.

"I remember 1980 and that's ringing very clearly in my mind right how," Bush said Tuesday as he stood at the front door of a computer firm in Nashua, N.H., shaking hands in the frigid dawn.

Bush lost New Hampshire after winning in Iowa in that campaign year because after gaining public attention he had been unable to develop an effective message to attract support. And it was by no means clear Tuesday that the vice president and his advisers had found any more effective way to address the voters of New Hampshire than he had used in Iowa.

His most notable innovation on his first post-Iowa day of campaigning was to tell New Hampshire voters: "I'm one of you," a rephrasing of the "He's one of us" slogan that had helped carry Iowa for Midwesterner Dole.

Actually, it was Dole, the Iowa victor, who was in the position that most resembled Bush's in 1980. Like Bush in that year, Dole has won a victory in Iowa that has thrust him into the spotlight. "He now has the attention of the country and the party," his adviser Keene said.

But as Keene acknowledged, Dole needs to find a broader framework for his positions if he is to gain support in New Hampshire, where he cannot lean, as he did so heavily in Iowa, on his common geographical roots with the electorate.

Dole will now get the sort of intensive scrutiny from the press and public that he has not yet received. It remains to be seen how he will respond to it.

Even more questions hover over the future of the third major player in the GOP campaign, Robertson.

In jubilation over his second-place finish Monday night, Robertson proclaimed himself to be "the conservative candidate."

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