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Campaign 2000 | THE TIMES POLL

Bush, Gore Hold Edge as Iowa Caucuses Near

Politics: A week before inaugural presidential contest, support seems solid for the front-runners of each party.


DES MOINES — Iowans appear poised to open the 2000 presidential race next Monday by bolstering each party's front-runner, though Democrat Al Gore may be on track for a more emphatic send-off than Republican George W. Bush, a Times poll has found.

Drawing strong support among traditional Democratic constituencies such as union members, women and working-class voters, Gore has opened up a commanding 58% to 35% lead over former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey in the Democratic race, the survey found. Despite intense personal campaigning and a barrage of television ads this month, Bradley trails among every demographic group except his stronghold of men with college or graduate degrees.

Bush is also attracting consistent support across the breadth of his party in the GOP contest. But in a more splintered field, the survey found Bush's margin is somewhat narrower than Gore's: the Texas governor draws 43%, compared to 25% for publisher Steve Forbes. Conservative activist Alan L. Keyes has moved into a solid third with 10%, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is not actively competing in the state, runs fourth with 8%. Gary Bauer has 7% and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah 1%.

The Times Poll, supervised by poll director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 571 likely Democratic and 557 likely Republican caucus-goers from Jan. 12 through Jan. 16. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points in each party.

Iowa will begin the voting in the battle for the parties' presidential nominations on Monday, as activists gather for 2,142 precinct caucuses around the state. Partisans assemble in small meetings to state their preferences for president. Over the last quarter-century, the caucuses have played a significant role in winnowing the field.

Because the caucus turnout is small--only about 100,000 people historically have participated in each party--the results can sometimes be unpredictable, especially if bad weather further depresses the number of participants. But the size of the leads for Gore and Bush--not only in this survey, but others released recently in the state--suggest the only suspense this year may be over the front-runners' margins of victory.

Although the poll finds that some opinions remain fluid, most voters look to be locking in on their decision. Two-thirds of Bush backers and 70% of Gore supporters say they are certain to vote for their man. Slightly smaller percentages of those backing Forbes (64%) and Bradley (62%) say they are certain of their choice. Only 6% of likely Republican voters and 7% of Democrats say they are undecided.

In a state where presidential politics has become a nearly permanent sideshow, it isn't surprising that large numbers of likely caucus-goers said they watched the recent presidential debates here. But almost 9-in-10 in both parties said the encounters did not affect their choice. One candidate who has benefited from the exposure, though, is Keyes, the sometimes volcanic social conservative: A plurality of 26% of Republican voters who watched said Keyes struck them as "the most knowledgeable."

Agriculture's Influence Fading

Another surprise in the survey is the limited role of agriculture, which has drawn intense attention from the candidates--especially the Democrats over the last few weeks. Not too surprisingly, the two Southern candidates--Tennessee's Gore and Texas' Bush--hold substantial leads over their rivals from New Jersey (Bradley and Forbes) when voters were asked which candidate could do the best job handling farm problems.

But the changing nature of Iowa's economy is measured in the finding that only 7% of Democrats and 8% of Republicans list agriculture as one of the major issues they want to hear candidates discuss. For the most part, voters here are concerned about the same issues as voters elsewhere: education, health care, Social Security and taxes (in that order) for the Democrats, and taxes, education and abortion (in order) for the Republicans.

In another striking finding, Bush appears to be benefiting here from one of the most controversial moments in the campaign: his declaration, in an Iowa debate last month, that Jesus Christ is the political philosopher who has influenced him most. Fully 61% of Iowa Republican voters said they believe that a candidate's "relationship with Jesus Christ should play a part in his campaign"; only 36% disagreed. (Suggesting the difficulties that response might present for Bush in a general election, 78% of Democrats said religion shouldn't play a role in the campaign.)

Sharon Verploeg, a Newton homemaker who responded to the poll, was considering Forbes but switched to Bush when he picked Jesus in the debate. "He seemed very sincere and that seemed to me a good sign," she said.

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