AMES, IOWA — HUDDLING on the confetti-strewn floor of an Iowa State University arena, Sen. Bob Dole's senior advisors debated how to tell their candidate the news.
Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas had just scored an upset in the most important straw poll of the pre-season presidential campaign, finishing in a dead tie with Mr. Dole.
A dress rehearsal for the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses next February, the event can provide candidates with a boost, and Mr. Gramm's troops were doing just that - claiming momentum. But in a straw poll marked by the questionable participation of non-Iowans, the results may more accurately indicate that front-runner Dole is slipping more than Gramm gaining.
The poll shows Dole's vulnerability. It acted as a wake-up call for his campaign. It also showed Gramm's organizational prowess, and gave two others who placed well - commentator Pat Buchanan and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander - a slight bump.
"To the extent that this is political theater, Dole is a big loser, but Gramm is not really a winner," says Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University here. "Dole's support has always been wafer thin."
With nearly all the campaigns involved in busing or flying in outsiders to pack their cheering sections, Professor Schmidt says, the only way to interpret the Iowa straw poll is to broaden the lens.
Gramm's boost here may be shortlived because he is out of sorts with Republicans in New Hampshire. Earlier this year, he lent tacit support to Arizona's attempt to displace New Hampshire as the first-in-the-nation primary. That hasn't gone over well in the Granite State.
The straw poll also obscured a potentially more troublesome threat to Dole: Pete Wilson. Although the California governor's campaign has been slow off the mark, analysts say his candidacy shows signs of strength.
Schmidt, who just returned from a two-week swing through New England, sees several positive forces for Mr. Wilson, who finished eighth out of a field of 10 here, partly because he limited his participation in protest of the admission of non-Iowans in the voting. One is that his protest here may appeal to the Perot bloc, which is disenchanted with big-money presidential politicking.
"When they go to New Hampshire," he says, "it may be to his advantage not to have participated in Iowa."
Another is that Wilson should get a boost in New Hampshire from Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, one of his chief supporters. A strong showing in New England and California would give Wilson a substantial base.
None of that support, though, was evident in Ames on Saturday. Standing amid a small gathering outside the arena, Mr. Wilson expressed disappointment at the "undermined integrity of the event." But, he says, voters nationwide are responding to his get-tough approach to immigration, crime, and welfare reform.
"I'm encouraged by the response I'm getting on individual issues," he says.
Dole, meanwhile, faces three problems that the other candidates continue to chip away at. With 35 years in the Senate, he is the consummate Washington insider. He would be the oldest man to take the oath of office. And, at least here in Iowa, many question his conservative credentials.
"There is not much difference between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton waffling on policy," says Floyd Cook, a member of the Dubuque County Republican Central Committee,who supports Gramm.
Mr. Lacy takes such criticism in stride. "Dole did a great job here," he says. "We were dramatically outspent. If Gramm spent more in this effort, he'll have less to spend in February" before reaching state spending caps.
If the straw poll results are a defective barometer of GOP sentiments here, it did bring further definition to the field. Schmidt says half the candidates - Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Richard Lugar of Indiana, former Ambassador Alan Keyes, Illinois businessman Morry Taylor, and Rep. Robert Dornan of California - are in trouble.
The poll also showed the enduring strength of the religious right here, as shown in the strong backing for Mr. Buchanan. "The Christian right is extremely well organized," Schmidt says. "Pat Buchanan might have done better if the voting had been limited to just Iowans."
Buchanan supporters clashed with Senator Specter, heckling him for supporting abortion rights. The two candidates represent the polar ends of the party on social issues. Gov. Terry Branstad (R) of Iowa downplayed the episode, saying it was a rivalry between the two candidates.
"I don't think it was smart for Specter to come in and punch people in the nose," he says of the candidate's pro-abortion-rights speech. "Specter has mishandled Iowa. Pro-life Democrats have come over" in droves.
But Schmidt says the rancor shows that abortion remains a wedge issue To thundering cheers, Buchanan vowed to see that the party's antiabortion plank remain in the platform.
One other big winner: the Iowa Republican Party, which took in more money than at any fundraising event in state history.