Fallout from a quick nomination process

As GOP hopefuls prepare for the Iowa straw poll, some predict it could be the premier event.

Time is inexorably speeding up. Children grow faster. News cycles are counted in minutes, not days.

So, too, in presidential politics is the pace of life growing ever-quicker. States are moving up the dates of their primary elections to boost their clout. And in GOP politics, the rush to rally around a perceived "winner" has created the early impression that the nomination is all but locked up.

In the process, some argue, presidential politics has grown ever-less democratic.

Long before any voters have cast ballots, Gov. George W. Bush (R) of Texas has positioned himself as seemingly unbeatable for the GOP nomination - a record $37 million raised so far, endorsements from most of the GOP establishment, and a big lead in polls. He has burst forth from a churning field of hopefuls that, in recent days, has added one candidate, lost two others, and, for today, stands at nine men and one woman.

Now Governor Bush has his eye on an early presidential event that has never carried so much significance: the Ames, Iowa, straw poll, set for Aug. 14. This Republican fund-raiser is designed to introduce GOP candidates to Iowa voters six months before the state's nominating caucuses. Several months before the year 2000 dawns, the Ames poll may well eclipse the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries as the premier "winnowing" events of the 2000 presidential race.

The significance of the nonbinding Ames straw poll, where 10,000 to 14,000 Iowans will declare their preference for a GOP nominee, is "entirely unprecedented," says Arthur Miller, a political analyst at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "Normally everyone sees this as simply an early test of how the Republicans are doing in getting their campaigns off the ground," says Professor Miller. "Now it's become a test of George W. Bush, and how organized he is here."

After a late start in Iowa, Bush has set a high bar for himself: He has predicted that he'll win an outright majority of the vote and that he'll bring 5,000 supporters to the event, double the record of any previous winner. If the Texas governor succeeds, most of the GOP field could fold. Analysts predict the crowd of 10 could dwindle to three or four - simply because a poor showing in Ames could discourage potential donors from funding what is perceived to be a losing cause. Already, three candidates, Dan Quayle, Gary Bauer, and Lamar Alexander are operating with a financial deficit.

In interviews, officials of various GOP campaigns say that while Ames has emerged as a crucial test, it won't be make-or-break for them. "We need to perform, but I don't think there's as much pressure or scrutiny on our performance as there is for someone who's at 50 percent plus in the polls nationally," says Frank Cannon, campaign manager for conservative activist Gary Bauer.

Former Tennessee Governor Alexander, who has been campaigning for the 2000 nomination ever since he dropped out of the 1996 race, has pledged he'll still be in the race by the time the Iowa caucuses roll around next February. He is banking on the network he has built in Iowa, and has predicted he'll send 40 or 50 busloads of supporters to Ames.

For all the candidates, the question is whether their supporters will want to bother heading to Ames on a Saturday in August. Candidates are handing out tickets to the event, worth $25 apiece, hiring buses, and planning culinary enticements, such as pig roasts. Publisher Steve Forbes is pointedly offering "air-conditioned" bus rides to Ames.

If Bush doesn't do as well as predicted, and polls well below 50 percent, the GOP nomination contest could be blown wide open. But if he does do well, analysts expect the cries from the rest of the field to grow only louder about how undemocratic the process has been.

So far, the loudest proponent of that view has been Alexander, who decries how all the big money that has funneled to Bush has shadowed other candidates. When Rep. John Kasich (R) of Ohio dropped out of the race last week, Alexander said: "Something is wrong when the system doesn't permit an articulate, thoughtful man of John Kasich's stature to even get to the starting line of the presidential race: the Iowa caucuses."

The problem for Alexander is that the Republicans have forcefully supported the Supreme Court's rulings that equate money with speech and, under the principle of free speech, permit candidates to amass lots of money.

What offends some Republicans outside Bush's camp is that the GOP establishment decided - based on Bush's polls, name recognition, and connections - to put all their eggs in Bush's basket simply because they thought he could win, not because of what he stood for. But the hard fact for the non-Bush crowd is that money begets money, and the aura of invincibility may well morph into a fact of invincibility as moneyed interests seek to curry favor with a man they think might be the next president.

Even as Republicans express frustration with Bush's large bank account - so large, in fact, that he has said he will forgo federal matching funds so he can spend without limits - analysts note that the Democratic nomination fight offers an important lesson in the role of money in politics.

As a sitting vice president, Al Gore had the biggest advantage of all in the fight for his party's nomination. And yet, wealthy Democratic donors have "spoken" in their check-writing: Mr. Gore's only challenger, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, raised a healthy $11 million in the first six months of this year to Gore's $18 million. The message for Gore is that many in his party aren't sure he'd be the best candidate. And so, in an ironic twist, the White House's incumbent party feels less invincible than the challenger.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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