WEST DES MOINES, IOWA — IT'S hard to tell if Sen. Bob Dole would find much comfort in Bonnie Bergstrom's kitchen. The steaming banana bread is delicious but the tone of the political palaver is less sustaining.
Mrs. Bergstrom and a half dozen other undecided Iowans gathered around her teakettle on a recent afternoon to consider the Republican nomination race. Their conclusions, and how they reached them, help explain why Mr. Dole is suddenly sliding in the polls, but also why he may prevail in the end.
The group, all self-described moderate conservatives, shares an average understanding of the candidates. They've seen their TV ads, watched them debate, read occasional newspaper articles, and heard headlines on the radio.
Representing a variety of professions, ages, and family circumstances, these voters spent three hours discussing a range of prominent issues. They assessed President Clinton's performance and each Republican candidate's message.
While certainly not a scientific forum, the session provides a snapshot of Republican voters a week away from the Iowa caucus, a key event in the 1996 presidential selection process. Echoing interviews with voters across Iowa and New Hampshire, the participants express little enthusiasm for the field of candidates.
In the end they form a consensus in support of Dole, but it is the kind of support the senator's rivals regard as proof of his vulnerability. Support that comes more by default than conviction.
"Bob Dole is running on his record but doesn't have a lot of new things to say," says Randy Bergstrom, a tax lawyer and Bonnie's husband. "I'm looking for candidate who is not going to rip up the economy without thought as to how to make the transition to a new tax code. Dole's not going to make waves.
The group first narrows the field down to what it sees as the viable candidates and the key issues. The candidates: Senators Dole, Gramm, and Richard Lugar of Indiana, and former Ambassador Alan Keyes. The issues included the federal budget, trade, tax reform, and education.
The group quickly rejects any candidate for appearing too negative or too conservative. That eliminates Pat Buchanan and Rep. Robert Dornan of California. No one thinks Morry Taylor is a serious contender. While a rising star in New Hampshire, Steve Forbes is bowed by inexperience and his incessant and negative ads.
Mrs. Bergstrom, an educator, thinks Pat Buchanan is too narrowly focused on abortion. Allen Spiller, who runs a temporary employment service, disagrees with Mr. Buchanan's foreign trade policies. "He's an isolationist if there ever was one. and we had a lot of those before World War II and look where that got us," Mr. Spiller says.
The group then looks for a candidate with leadership, integrity, and bipartisanship. Barby Harding says she agrees with what Mr. Keyes says about restoring the family, but Bergstrom thinks Keyes is unelectable and therefore leans toward Gramm.
OTHERS disqualify Keyes on the basis of experience. "A lot of nonpoliticians talk about how we need a nonpolitician and they are against compromise and everything," Spiller says. "If one of those guys ever gets elected and goes to Washington and sees what a completely mysterious system he's walked into, he isn't going to know how to do his job."
Both Spiller and David Furbush, vice president of a financial services firm, show an interest in Lugar. The problem, Mr. Furbush says, is that Lugar lacks luster. "Lugar has a very good message," he says, "especially the way he wants to address consumption and taxes. But I just can't get excited about his delivery."
All participants say balancing the budget makes this this election is particularly relevant.
"This whole business of the budget - we've got to straighten it out," says Harriet Russell, an account executive.
Furbush says balancing the budget is more important than a tax cut. "I'd rather do the hard work first and reap the benefits of tax cuts after. Under Reagan, it seems it me, we got all the tax cuts first and then we starting have the deficits run up."
Tax reform, the issue helping bolster Forbes, has do be done right, Mr. Bergstrom says. "We have a large pension business, we have a large group health business, we have a large health insurance business," he says of his company. "The flat tax coming in, done wrong or poorly transitioned, does away with all that, and we've suddenly got 12,000 employees looking for work."
None of the voters has particular grievances with President Clinton. They say they simply couldn't trust him. "I think Clinton would be a great guy to sit down a split a plate of fried chicken with," Spiller says
Mr. Bergstrom puts it another way: "When Clinton was first brought in I sure thought he was a used-car salesman ... But Congress has kept him in check. It hasn't hurt the economy too much."
Furbush and Mrs. Bergstrom are troubled by the swirl of allegations surrounding the Clintons. "I was glad Clinton got in because of Hillary, but now I'm not too certain about that," she says.
Ms. Russell says Clinton's military draft deferments bother her, and has a problem with both Gramm and Buchanan for the same reason.
By this process of elimination, the gathering arrives at a consensus for Dole. It's the kind of support that reflects dissatisfaction with the field. It may or may not be the kind of conviction that brings voters out on caucus night.