DES MOINES — AFTER eight years of diminished importance, the Iowa caucuses have reemerged as both a crucial stepping stone to the Republican nomination and a key ideological battleground within the party.
Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas is expected to win in the vote today, but his victory isn't likely to settle much. A cluster of candidates is running hard for second and a biting campaign tone reflects the divisions among religious conservatives, social moderates, and economic populists.
But even if the race moves on to New Hampshire without a clear alignment of the field, Iowa is providing a more focused lens than usual on the party's struggle over the national agenda. With no major divisions over farm issues here and state unemployment at record lows, broader themes such as the federal deficit, tax reform, and abortion have come to the fore.
"The national agenda is the Iowa agenda," says Hugh Winebrenner, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. "The federal budget and crime have become every bit as important as farm policy. This is different. It makes Iowa more representative of the nation than it usually is."
ARAW political wind blew over Iowa during a weekend marked by caustic sarcasm, political pranks, and nonstop attack advertisements. Rarely, if ever, has this state seen such negative campaigning. Several camps leveled charges of foul play by unnamed rivals.
After finishing an event in Waterloo, for example, Sen. Phil Gramm returned to the airport only to find his plane had been cancelled by an anonymous caller claiming to represent the senator's campaign. The delay fouled up a tight schedule.
Across the state, supporters of Lamar Alexander said they had received anonymous calls claiming the Tennessee governor was pro-choice and his wife was on the board of Planned Parenthood.
Typical of the remarks several candidates made about Steve Forbes, Senator Dole responded to one question about the publisher this way: "He's peaked, I'm piqued."
The rough campaigning reflected how uncertain the race appeared on the eve of the caucuses. In a Des Moines Register poll released Saturday, Dole had 28 percent, Mr. Forbes 16, Pat Buchanan 11, Mr. Alexander 10, and Senator Gramm 8 percent. The poll suggested that Forbes was slipping while both Mr. Buchanan and Alexander were on the rise.
In the past several days, fierce competition has focused on religious conservatives. Without its founder, Pat Robertson, or a candidate like former vice president Dan Quayle in the race, the Christian Coalition is divided among Dole, Gramm, and Buchanan.
Dole and Buchanan, hoping to gain from Gramm's loss in Louisiana last week, have doubled their efforts to consolidate the religious conservative vote by portraying Forbes as an advocate of abortion and gay rights. Forbes is against abortion, but isn't sure the federal government can prevent it.
"One of our concerns is that this could boil down to a two-way race," says Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad during a campaign stop for Dole. "We're trying to appeal to Christian conservatives to coalesce around Dole" to thwart the Forbes threat.
Despite the effort, Ione Dilley, chairwoman of the Iowa branch of the Christian Coalition, says she doesn't see much movement among such voters. A backer of Dole, though, she leaves the door open to a last minute shift.
"Other things being fairly equal," she says, "Dole has the wit, ardor, and art of politicking that can take care of Bill Clinton."
Gramm, for his part, returned to social themes after his loss in Louisiana. In a letter to both Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, he called for a new crime bill and legislation banning late-term abortions. In a moment of political drama, he filmed a live television ad outside a Vietnamese cafe in Des Moines where a young man was shot last August in gang violence.
Gramm also has attacked Buchanan's tough-trade policies. Slapping high tariffs on Japan and China, he says, would be disastrous for American farm exports.
Neil Harl, an agroeconomist at Iowa State University, agrees. But he doesn't see an advantage for Gramm - or Forbes - in the farm vote for another reason: the flat tax.
"As people learn more about the flat tax," he says, "they become less enthusiastic." He says farmers are beginning to realize that a loss of the land-values tax deduction could be devastating. That could favor Dole.
There has been considerable debate over the undecided vote. The Des Moines Register poll, like many, showed that 19 percent of Republican voters are undecided. Many think that bloc could boost Alexander most, because it includes voters who have backed away from Dole and Forbes in response to their negative ads.
But Dr. Winebrenner says the undecided vote is so much wind on the prairie. Polling in caucus states is tricky, since most voters don't turn out. "The undecided vote is a creation of survey research methodology," he says. "Most people who attend caucuses do so because they are committed to one of the candidates."
That may be, but, Alexander is hopeful that things are moving his way. "The race is tightening up," he says. "There's a lot of respect for Bob Dole but a great deal of worry. He's kind of like having an old friend who you don't want to say no to, but you know deep down in your heart that he really shouldn't be in the final debate with Clinton."
GOP Stands Divided in Iowa
The Des Moines Register poll, like many, shows that 19 percent of Republican voters are undecided.