GOP after Iowa: trouble ahead

LOOKING to the New Hampshire primary after the Iowa caucuses, the Democrats have a competitive three-man race, and the Republicans have a problem. First the Democrats. If the 1-2-3 Iowa finishes of Richard Gephardt, Paul Simon, and Michael Dukakis are properly discounted - Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Simon are from neighboring states, and Gephardt invested the most time and effort in Iowa - then the three head into next Tuesday's New Hampshire primary evenly matched. Mr. Dukakis should do better than the others on his neighboring New England turf. Another second-place finish for Simon would keep him in the running for Super Tuesday.

On the GOP side, George Bush's weak third-place finish in Iowa, where he beat Ronald Reagan eight years ago, puts his campaign in jeopardy. Political legacies are seldom passed to heirs. What Mr. Reagan earned in 24 years of campaigning, and seven years in the White House, is not Mr. Bush's to spend.

All the more now, Bush is the Republican to watch in New Hampshire, where he has had the lead from the outset. An upset there would be devastating. He could not blame a second loss to Robert Dole on the latter's regional advantage, as in Iowa. He could not blame a substantial inroad by the Pat Robertson campaign on the caucus mechanism, which allows highly motivated political groups to have an exaggerated impact. Bush, who is part New Englander with links to Connecticut and Maine, is on his own in New Hampshire. He must win convincingly.

For mainstream Republicans, Pat Robertson's stunning second-place finish has produced a sudden anxiety. Ahead they fear another potential surge by Mr. Robertson on Super Tuesday, March 8.

Robertson is not the proven politician that Ronald Reagan was. And it would be delusive to think that Americans, generally, are enlisting on the religious right. Still, Reagan, not an overtly religious person, linked his ideological hard-line core to the religious right in a way that Robertson might just do in reverse. If Robertson is attractive to Southern Baptists, charismatics, and evangelicals, who are as apt to be Democrats as Republicans, he could have as big an impact in the Southern events on March 8 as Jesse Jackson on the Democratic side. The Rev. Mr. Jackson is given a chance of winning half a dozen states on Super Tuesday; Robertson could do as well. Indeed, in contests that allow crossover voting from one party to another, Robertson might draw Democrats who are turned off by the Northern liberal image of, say, Dukakis and Simon, who do not want to vote for a black, Jackson, and who are not much excited by conservative-come-lately Albert Gore.

What had been seen as a race between two experienced pragmatists, Bush and Dole, has been jolted by the kind of political fervor that the party establishment would have preferred not to see in 1988. Robertson's Iowa performance puts the emphasis on social issues and party division.

Dole has a vexing choice: Either he can go after Robertson and risk losing right-wing supporters in the fall, or he can try to absorb potential Robertson voters by changing his own message. Dole's challenge is to shift his Washington-insider, man-who-gets-things-done focus to something more visionary, more impassioned, in the next few days.

Similarly, Jack Kemp will have to take after Robertson in New Hampshire if Mr. Kemp is to claim the right-wing legacy.

Meanwhile, the Democrats may get a little less attention because of the Robertson phenomenon. Still, three candidates - Gephardt, Dukakis, and Simon - will be taken more seriously now. The candidates as a group are forward-looking, change-oriented, though none has has yet put together the pieces of a 1988 Democratic message.

After just the preliminary Iowa event, the Democrats as a group are breathing a little easier, and the Republicans are having to run a little harder.

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