WASHINGTON — AND they're off!
Republican politicians, sensing that President Clinton can be whipped in 1996, already are warming up for the race, even though the first primaries in New Hampshire are still 20 months away.
The activity intensified over the weekend at the Republican state convention in Iowa, where 1,348 party activists conducted one of the earliest straw polls for president on record.
The straw ballot, drawn up by state Republicans, contained 23 names - just about anyone who might run in 1996 - from Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas to Gov. Christine Whitman of New Jersey. Former Vice President Dan Quayle was on the list, and so was retired Gen. Colin Powell, even though he may not be a Republican. Seven potential candidates worked the crowds.
The results: Senator Dole, as expected, came out on top with 356 votes. Former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander of Tennessee was second with 205. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas came in third at 200 votes.
Despite the long list of hopefuls, nearly all the votes went to just eight names: Senator Dole; Mr. Alexander; Senator Gramm; Jack Kemp, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; former Defense Secretary Richard Cheney; Mr. Quayle; commentator Patrick Buchanan; and former Education Secretary William Bennett.
What does the early Iowa vote signal?
First, it tells Republicans what they already knew: The race for their party's nomination is wide open. Unlike every other election since World War II, this time there is no presumptive heir to the GOP leadership, such as Richard Nixon in 1960 or Ronald Reagan in 1980.
As one analyst, William Schneider, puts it, there is ``no man to beat right now.''
Even Dole, the Iowa winner from the state next door, got only 26 percent of the straw vote. Alexander and Gramm both saw their prospects enhanced.
Ordinarily, former vice presidents like Mr. Quayle become automatic front-runners, and he may still become a major factor in the coming race. But he placed sixth with 7 percent of the vote. For now, he clearly lacks the kind of support enjoyed by other vice presidents when they began their presidential runs, such as George Bush in 1988 or Walter Mondale in 1984.
Second, without a front- runner, the 1996 contest could see the emergence of lesser-known candidates, such as Alexander, Gramm, or former Gov. Tom Kean of New Jersey.
Alexander already has visited Iowa - scene of the first 1996 party caucuses - seven times to look for support. That's more than anyone else, according to Hugh Winebrenner, a caucus expert at Drake University. Gramm was the second most frequent visitor with five forays into Iowa.
Without a powerful front-runner, Gramm or Alexander could use the earliest voting states - Iowa and New Hampshire - as launching pads to vault past Dole or Quayle.
Third, judging from the speeches and the enthusiasm in Iowa, Republicans think they've found Mr. Clinton's vulnerabilities for 1996.
It's still very early, of course. But Republicans are working two themes - the president's perceived weakness in foreign policy and his penchant for big government programs supported by sweeping new taxes, including his proposals for government-mandated health care.
Alexander warned the Republican audience that it's not enough to criticize Clinton, however. Americans want to know what the GOP supports. So he spoke favorably of a stronger military and of the need for choice in schools.
There was evidence, as Republicans gathered in Iowa, that the political tide may be moving their way. Flying to the Midwest aboard Air Force One, the president telephoned a St. Louis radio station to complain bitterly about attacks on his record by talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Christian conservatives like Jerry Falwell.
Clinton also rapped the mainstream media for ``negative'' reports and for editorializing in their news columns. He described talk radio as ``a constant, unremitting drumbeat of negativism and cynicism'' that makes it difficult to govern.
If there was one cautious note at the Iowa convention, it was sounded by former Governor Kean and Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania. They warned that if Republicans split, as they have in Virginia, between candidates supported by religious conservatives and GOP moderates, they will open the way for a Democratic victory.
Kean, perhaps the most popular Republican politician in New Jersey history, urged the GOP to broaden its appeal. He suggested that if the party becomes inflexible on issues like gay rights, women's rights, and abortion, the GOP could find itself relegated to the ``sideline'' of national political debate.
It was a message that didn't seem to sit well with GOP conventioneers. Kean got only two votes, Senator Specter only six, and at one point the senator was booed.