On To Iowa

AS Iowans troop to party caucuses tonight, the process of winnowing out the Republican candidates begins. The meteoric rise of Steve Forbes and the large numbers of undecideds in Iowa and New Hampshire polls make it a tough call.

Phil Gramm is probably right: If he doesn't place at least third in Iowa, his campaign is through.

As the weekend began, he faced an uphill fight. After a year of campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire, he is still in single digits in both, ranking fourth or fifth.

In a way, Senator Gramm has created his predicament. He started out with the biggest war chest of any candidate, some $20 million, but it hasn't bought him much. He engineered an earlier-than-Iowa caucus in Louisiana, predicted he would win it, and watched it backfire. Meanwhile, he made a lot of enemies in Des Moines. He tried to engineer an earlier-than-New-Hampshire primary in Arizona, thereby getting off on the wrong foot in the Vote-First-or-Die state. But his biggest problem is he just doesn't come across well to the voters.

Pat Buchanan's religion was an asset in the Bayou, where French Cajuns turned out for him in droves. Franco-Americans in New Hampshire will likely do the same, and he could take the "third ticket" in Iowa.

Lamar Alexander might break out of single digits if moderates tire of the vicious donnybrook between Forbes and Sen. Bob Dole. Alexander's been campaigning hard and advertising for months, but his ads until recently have lacked a solid message. Voters appear to think of him as a nice guy, but don't really associate him with an issue.

Forbes is tapping voters' still widespread anti-Washington sentiment. Political insiders say he didn't expect to be doing so well so early and wonder if he peaked too soon.

It's not clear whether money can buy the kind of organization that gets out the vote - the only poll that counts.

Dole remains the favorite of conventional wisdom. His Senate duties have kept him off the campaign trail until now, but he is a tough campaigner, has a strong organization, and broad, if not deep, appeal.

The choices are there: Now Republicans and like-minded independents must do their civic duty and vote.

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