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NEWS ANALYSIS

More Questions Than Answers in GOP Straw Poll

August 16, 1999|RONALD BROWNSTEIN and MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITERS

"I don't think there are enough votes available to Forbes on the side of the party he's chosen to run in," said GOP strategist Rich Galen.

Complicating Forbes' problem was that activists Gary Bauer and Patrick J. Buchanan both ran respectably enough in Ames--finishing fourth and fifth respectively--to sustain their campaigns. That promises to further splinter the conservative vote Forbes hopes to unite.

Buchanan's future in the race--indeed in the party--was less clear than Bauer's. In appearances Sunday on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press" and CBS-TV's "Face the Nation," Buchanan refused to close the door on bolting the GOP and joining the Reform Party.

"I'm going right now down this road" toward pursuing the GOP nomination, Buchanan said on "Face the Nation." Then he pointedly added: "I don't know exactly where I'm going to be in August of 2000."

For the conservative contenders, the best news Saturday may have been that Dole ran well enough to invigorate her campaign. That means she may be able to attract more centrist voters who might otherwise prefer Bush.

At a rally in her campaign headquarters here Sunday, Dole unabashedly portrayed her third-place showing as "a great victory."

In some ways it was. Dole demonstrated a formidable ability to generate enthusiasm among women; her campaign estimated that women provided two-thirds of her votes.

But it is difficult to build a campaign on third-place finishes--even surprising ones. In 1996, third-place showings in both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary gave Alexander a bit of a boost--but not enough to truly make him a viable contender. The question for Dole is whether this result will be enough to significantly boost her modest fund-raising, or to convince GOP voters in large numbers to give her a second look.

"There is no win, place and show in these things," said Tom Rath, a top Alexander advisor. "You can only afford to come in third a couple times."

Questions surfaced even for the one major candidate who skipped the contest: Arizona Sen. John McCain. On "Face the Nation," McCain all but announced that he would skip the Iowa caucus itself next January to focus on New Hampshire and South Carolina--making public what his advisors have privately acknowledged for months. "I may not want to be a part of that" caucus, McCain said.

Yet the vast turnout for the straw poll--and the huge press attention it attracted--suggests the spotlight on the Iowa caucus could be even more intense than usual next year. That could leave McCain eclipsed by the top finishers here in the days before the New Hampshire primary.

The viability of McCain's strategy remained just as uncertain after Ames as before. Which made it typical for an event that--despite torrents of spin and commentary--raised more questions than it resolved. After all was said and done in Ames, much more was said than done.

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