Washington — Trouble could already be brewing for the two front-runners in the 1988 presidential race. Vice-President George Bush, far ahead of his Republican rivals nationwide, faces a growing challenge in the first caucus state, Iowa.
The threat to Mr. Bush comes from Sen. Robert Dole, who hails from nearby Kansas and who talks the kind of language that Iowa farmers understand. Senator Dole, who is close to Iowa's highly popular Sen. Charles Grassley, may target Iowa as a battleground state where Bush could be stopped early.
At the same time, another Republican rival, US Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, appears to be focusing on New Hampshire, where he might have the best opportunity to derail Bush. The combined Dole-Kemp threat will force Bush to divide his forces.
Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado is confronted with a similar obstacle on the Democratic side. While he leads the polls in Iowa, things look more worrisome in New Hampshire, the first primary state.
Early surveys indicate that Senator Hart might win easily in New Hampshire - but only if Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis stays out of the race.
When Governor Dukakis's name is added to the polls, Hart's strength plunges - an indication that Dukakis might win in New Hampshire if he runs as a New England ``favorite son.''
A Bush defeat in Iowa and a Hart loss in New Hampshire could throw the 1988 nominating races wide open.
``The greatest danger to Bush is early damage,'' says Ed Rollins, a leading GOP political consultant. If Bush gets hurt in Iowa or New Hampshire, Mr. Rollins says, but still wins the nomination, he may be beaten up, as Walter Mondale was in 1984, and lack the momentum needed for a strong autumn campaign.
Doubts persist among political insiders about the staying power of both Hart and Bush. They note that the vice-president's support among Republicans remains ``mushy.'' Hovering for six years in Ronald Reagan's shadow, Bush has not developed an identity of his own.
And Horace Busby, a political analyst here, says there is a growing sense that ``Hart is fading.''
Norman Ornstein, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, says that Bush and Hart have similar challenges. Both are expected to win big. So even if Hart or Bush gets 40 percent of the vote in Iowa or New Hampshire, for example, it could be seen as a loss.
That happened to Mr. Mondale in 1984. He got three times the vote of Hart in Iowa, yet it was Hart who moved out of Iowa with more momentum. Because of new election rules in 1988, both Hart and Bush could face greater challenges from regional candidates.
Hart could first be hit by favorite son Dukakis in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine. Those primaries will be quickly followed by the Southwide ``Super Tuesday'' primary, where favorite son Charles Robb (former governor of Virginia) or Sam Nunn (US senator from Georgia) could come out on top. Hart could have a difficult time sustaining his momentum.
Bush could be bushwhacked by Midwesterner Dole in Iowa, Easterner Kemp in New England, and by Southerners such as former US Sen. Howard Baker and the Rev. Pat Robertson in Dixie.