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Louisiana Upset Boosts Religious Conservatives

Politics: Cultural concerns move to front burner as GOP contest shifts to Iowa. Gramm is chastened.

February 08, 1996|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

DES MOINES — The surprising results of the Louisiana caucuses reverberated through the Republican presidential race Wednesday, demonstrating again the power of social conservatives in the new GOP coalition and setting the stage for a next act in Iowa heavily colored by cultural concerns.

The strong turnout by religious conservatives that powered Patrick J. Buchanan's upset victory over Texas Sen. Phil Gramm in Louisiana underscored the stakes in the competition for the allegiance of those voters in Iowa, which holds its influential caucuses Monday night.

On Wednesday, both Gramm and Buchanan argued that they were the best candidate to unite social and economic conservatives. And Steve Forbes--the man they hope to overtake for second place in the Iowa contest--continued to face sharp questions from that state's conservatives over his positions on abortion and other social issues.

Clearly chastened by his surprising defeat in Louisiana, Gramm said Wednesday that he would have to finish within the top three in Iowa to remain a viable candidate.

"We have . . . a long way to go, and a short time to get there," Gramm said at a Des Moines rally.

Meanwhile, Buchanan buoyantly toured the state, declaring that he was constructing a winning middle-class coalition with a message that can bind "traditional values, putting America first, right to life."

"The argument we're going to make for the rest of this campaign in Iowa is this: Pat Buchanan is the conservative who can win this race," Buchanan said at a Des Moines press conference.

That assessment remains premature: Fewer than 30,000 Republicans voted in Louisiana, and the two leading candidates in the national polls--Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Forbes--boycotted the contest for fear of offending voters here jealous of their traditional first-in-the-nation status.

Still, the Louisiana results demonstrated both Buchanan's ability to mobilize social conservatives and the large shadow those voters will cast over many of the early Republican contests.

"Louisiana shows--and Iowa is going to show--that social conservatives are going to turn out en masse," said D.J. Gribbin, the national field director for the Christian Coalition. "They didn't declare victory and go home in 1994."

Just over half of the voters in Tuesday's Louisiana caucuses identified themselves as members of the "conservative Christian political movement," according to TV network exit polls. Those voters preferred Buchanan over Gramm by 25 percentage points.

Religious conservatives played such a large role in Louisiana partly because the turnout was so small. But all the campaigns expect religious conservatives to also constitute a pivotal share of the vote in Iowa--anywhere from one-third to just over half.

Skepticism from social conservatives represents a potentially significant threat to Forbes, who is battling to hold onto his second-place position in several polls in Iowa. Though the publishing magnate draws warm words from many moderate and pro-abortion-rights Republicans around the state, many social conservatives appear skeptical.

On Wednesday, Forbes continued his efforts to make peace with those voters. He told a business leaders breakfast meeting in Des Moines that he believed the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision establishing the legal right to abortion "was a faultily made decision." Forbes also said again, as he has in recent days, that he considered conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia the model he would follow in making his appointments to the high court.

Private and public polling in Iowa this week has shown Dole--who carried the state in 1988--stabilizing his advantage here. Dole was forced to cancel a series of planned events in New Hampshire on Wednesday; he spent the day in Washington helping oversee Senate passage of a sweeping farm bill that had been deadlocked.

Polls show Forbes running second here behind Dole. But with Forbes lacking the traditional grass-roots political organization previously considered critical here--and both his flat-tax proposal and his position on social issues under attack--aides in the other campaigns believe that his hold on the No. 2 spot could still be loosened.

"We seem to have succeeded in weighing down Forbes," one senior Dole official said Wednesday. "There's some question that Forbes can hold onto second place there [Iowa]."

In Dole's polling, the official said, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander has moved into third place, within striking distance of Forbes.

Alexander spent Wednesday in New Hampshire, where he decried the negative tone of the campaign--and continued his rhetorical assault on Forbes' flat-tax plan. Addressing about 200 people at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, Alexander said that if the GOP adopts Forbes' flat-tax plan "we'll have about as many members in our party as the Flat Earth Society does."

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