Iowa Clears Its Throat

Brooding, sphinxlike Iowa is about to speak. Well, maybe as much as seven tenths of 1 percent of Iowa's voting-age population will speak in Ames this Saturday. There may be as many as 15,000 card-carrying Iowans (this year, for the first time, they had better have proof that they are Iowans) who will pay $25 for the privilege of participating in a straw poll. The identification requirement aims to stop candidates from busing and even flying in supporters from far away. In other years, the joke went, some Iowans met their first Puerto Ricans at the Ames straw poll. This year's poll will be the first real--well, semi-real--event of the Republican presidential nomination contest. Or, more precisely, the poll will be a straw in the wind, indicating whether there really will be a contest.

Because it is a safe surmise that George W. Bush will win, there is a sense in which he can't win. He has not spent much time--much less than most of his rivals--in Iowa, so he is not apt to win as decisively as he now leads in national opinion polls. Therefore, someone, maybe several someones, will do better than "expected." It will not be John McCain, who is passing up the straw poll. But the poll will begin to answer a number of questions.

One is whether Elizabeth Dole's large, warm crowds are composed of members of the Republican nominating electorate, or are just tokens of her celebrity. Dan Quayle will learn whether he can surmount his celebrity. Lamar Alexander, whose sour grapes ad attacking Bush for supposedly excessive fund-raising success is evidence that Alexander's campaign is running on fumes, has spent more time in Iowa than any other candidate. He does well or he goes home--if, after six years of nonstop campaigning, he can remember where home is.

Pat Buchanan, who lives off the land, and Gary Bauer, who lives off the fervor of the most fervent social conservatives, may have the least at risk in Ames. They can soldier on, regardless of the results. They can even keep their powder dry and their options open: either one could be troublesome if the nominee and the platform leave the Philadelphia convention sounding a retreat on abortion.

Perhaps the most interesting question that the straw poll will begin to answer concerns Steve Forbes, whose (mostly) personally financed campaign lives high on the hog (hog references go down well in Iowa) and can continue as long as he wants it to. Which is why he worries Bush most.

Republicans have rallied to Bush ardently, and in numbers that are astonishing, given how little ideological red meat he has thrown to the nominating electorate, which usually hungers for ideological feasts. Having seen Republican nominees fail to win even 41 percent of the vote in two consecutive elections, Republican activists are hungry for victory. This hunger is one of Forbes's handicaps.

He is as long on specifics as Bush is, for the moment, short. Forbes is the voice of rank-and-file discontentment with the Republicans' congressional majorities, which cannot disguise, with an incoherent tax cut, their capitulation to the spending fever trigged by anticipation of the supposed (and perhaps fictitious) surpluses. The voting in Ames will indicate the extent to which the desire to win 15 months from now dominates Republican thinking to the exclusion of all else.

In the early stages of the nominating process, little things can mean a lot. For example, if the rafter-rattling Alan Keyes, radio talk-show host and (he has two careers) presidential candidate, had not been in the 1996 Iowa caucuses, Bob Dole probably would not have been the Republican nominee. Pat Buchanan lost to Dole in the caucuses by just 2,866 votes. Keyes got 7,179 votes, many of which probably would otherwise have gone to Buchanan. Few would have gone to Dole. Eight days later, Buchanan beat Dole in New Hampshire. If that had been Dole's second defeat, he probably would have dropped out. Hence the excitement a straw poll, even in a year not divisible by four, can generate.

Excitement is the cocaine of political journalists. In a prosperous, contented bourgeois society, boredom can be a destabilizing force. Journalists are particularly susceptible to it, partly because they spend so much time in the company of one another, partly because they are addicted to adrenaline. So it is time for all the Republican candidates and their staffs to start thinking about this: how do the dynamics of the Republican contest change if, by January, the excitement has moved to the Democratic side of the street?

Suppose, as is possible, even probable, that by January Bill Bradley has pulled much closer to Al Gore than anyone has to Bush? That might benefit Bush by starving his challengers of media attention. Or perhaps one or more of them would benefit from the generally heightened sense of contingency that would result from Bradley puncturing the aura of inevitability that Gore's campaign already, more than five months before Iowa's caucuses, is finding it increasingly difficult to project.

Predicting the outcomes of the presidential nomination process has become a science of single instances, meaning no science at all. This is because the process will not hold still. The fact that through Saturday night Ames will be the center of the political universe is a small symptom of how radically the process has changed since 1968, when Democrats nominated a man (Hubert Humphrey) who had not contested a single primary. Now even minicontests like the one in Ames are fiercely fought, and can produce political fatalities.

Still, candidates for whom the Ames results cannot be spun as any sort of victory will nevertheless emulate the jaunty savoir-faire of Connie Mack after the 1916 season. He said, "Well, you can't win them all," his Philadelphia Athletics having gone 36-117.