THE aura of unfulfilled desire hangs like a fog over the Republican race for the White House.
That's the feeling at the end of the straw-poll season, the political equivalent of exhibition games. Voters seem reluctant to fill the hole left by Colin Powell's absence with one of the existing candidates. That point hasn't been lost on those still in the race.
In a nonbinding weekend convention here, GOP contenders chased participants like alligators after golfers. Sen. Bob Dole sent Godiva chocolates to delegates. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander gave a book with a picture of himself on the cover, wearing red-checkered flannel. The campaigns spent more time and resources here than on any other contest so far.
The poll was important. It was the last contest before the primaries and the first since General Powell's withdrawal. A strong showing could boost fund-raising and generate momentum.
But the results may not have been decisive enough to change the race from the course it has been on for months. Senator Dole reaped 33 percent, enough to win but not sharpen his status as front-runner. Texas Sen. Phil Gramm finished only 7 points behind, but since he has based his strategy on winning straw polls, he probably needed a victory to overcome fund-raising problems.
Mr. Alexander's tight third makes it hard for him to argue that he is a plausible alternative to Dole. Pat Buchanan's distant fourth suggests a limited range. The rest of the field may begin to winnow.
In the weeks to come, what the campaigns do will reflect their positions in the race. Alexander will focus on fund-raising, Gramm and Buchanan on spreading their message. Dole will level his attacks on President Clinton. He can forget the GOP pack for now, he's got to prove he can beat the incumbent.
"I'm not sure anyone won," says Ron Kaufman, a Washington-based GOP strategist. "The key for Gramm and Alexander was whether this would turn on the ATM machine. I'm not sure it did. Time and money are on Bob Dole's side now."
Powell supporters might also retreat to Dole's camp. While Florida suggested that the general's exit won't automatically boost Dole, disenchanted voters may keep a second tier of candidates from forming across a broad number of states.
Take Iowa, for instance. Both Gramm and Alexander are mired in single-digit poll returns. Pat Buchanan is part of the reason; he draws from the strong influence of the religious right. But a slice of the Powell vote that Alexander hopes to take is moving toward millionaire Steve Forbes. It's more than just a matter of coming from outside of Washington. Those voters want someone untainted by politics.
"Now that Colin Powell is out, a lot of people are grousing," says Stephen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University, in Ames. "People who want someone without political connections are starting to look at Forbes."
There is also a high level of uncertainty among voters as to which candidate can beat Clinton next year. Despite being inundated by mailings and dinner invitations from the candidates, a large number of delegates to the Florida straw poll arrived in Orlando undecided. They were not only looking for a leader with vision but also for a candidate who can win more than the party's nomination.
"I'm going with Dole," Edward Wolfer said just before the vote. "Gramm can't beat Bill Clinton. It comes down to who can win."
Another delegate, John Puffer, had different ideas. "Those from outside Washington have a lot more success getting elected," he says, explaining why he didn't vote for Gramm or Dole. "Alexander is the most electable. We need to get Bill Clinton out."
One voice does stand out in the GOP pack. Alan Keyes, the fiery former ambassador to the United Nations, drew praise from delegates here for his argument that the nation's social and economic problems are one in the same, grounded in the breakdown of the marriage-based family. His speech drew the only standing ovation, but few voters think he is electable, and he finished a distant fifth.