Great Expectations and Lost Hopes

Gramm pullout and Forbes strategy reassessment signal return to classic campaigns

THEY posed, each in his own time, the biggest threats Bob Dole faced on the way toward the Republican nomination. Now one is gone, and the other is scrambling to save his candidacy.

The decisions by Sen. Phil Gramm to bow out and Steve Forbes to rethink his strategy provide insights into a divided political party, a dissatisfied electorate, and a process some say has reaffirmed classic methods of campaigning.

In the end, however, they may prove a pattern of history. Republicans, unlike Democrats, seldom back a dark horse.

''It is very difficult to overcome the fact that Republicans like front-runners,'' says Sal Russo, a GOP strategist in California. ''We have ever since Wendell Wilkie'' won the nomination in 1940.

Mr. Gramm's decision to quit the race came after his poor showing in both Louisiana and Iowa. On Tuesday, Mr. Forbes canceled all scheduled events in New Hampshire and met for several hours with his top strategists to rechart the course of his campaign.

Of course, it is too early to dismiss Forbes. His deep pockets will keep him in the game as long as he decides to play. But lost momentum is hard to recover.

Almost a year ago to the day, Gramm entered the race with great fanfare. He transferred roughly $5 million from his Senate campaign coffers to his presidential effort in an attempt to gain the early lead and, perhaps, ward off potential competitors.

Mr. Dole had an early hold on the party structure. Gramm knew he would need to build credibility quickly in order to gain valuable endorsements and grass-roots support. He followed a two-prong strategy.

First, he aggressively entered every straw poll that he could. Second, Gramm tried to take advantage of state efforts to leapfrog each other in the primary schedule.

He supported attempts by both Delaware and Arizona to steal some of New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation influence, and Louisiana's attempt to precede Iowa's lead-off caucuses.

Neither seemed to work.

No one has ever proved straw polls an effective way to capture a nomination. They provide candidates an opportunity to test their organizations on the ground and woo state GOP officials, but are costly.

They can be risky, too. Gramm mounted a major effort last August and tied Dole in an Iowa straw vote. That established expectations that he failed to meet when he placed fifth in the caucuses on Monday.

Cajun blues

Louisiana, meanwhile, turned out to be a lackluster affair - only a small percentage of Republicans showed up and many caucuses were disorganized. Gramm promised victory. His loss last week proved devastating. ''We set the bar too high,'' one campaign aide said.

Moreover, he angered party officials in both Iowa and New Hampshire by supporting the other states' early voting efforts, undermining his standing there.

Adding to Gramm's difficulties was his inability to distinguish himself from the rest of the field.

''Dole holds a lot of the center, and Pat Buchanan has identified a particular niche on the right,'' says Michael Goldstein, a political scientist at the Claremont McKenna College in California. ''What was the niche that was left for Gramm to fill?''

Ironically, Gramm was more ideologically aligned with the Republican agenda in Congress than his rivals. His fortunes weren't helped as Congress faltered on the budget.

Then, Mr. Forbes came out of nowhere - fast. Using his own money, he mounted a huge air war, bombarding voters in New Hampshire and Iowa with television and radio ads. For a while, the strategy worked so well pundits were beginning to wonder if the age of ''meet and greet'' politics was over.

Forbes's fizzle

Forbes also had a message. His simple flat tax and Reaganesque optimism found receptive ears among voters eager for a positive message. Cutting the Internal Revenue Service is a more popular position on the stump than reining in Medicare.

But Forbes's method of campaigning may have damaged him in Iowa. He pumped millions into negative ads, and voters - at least in Iowa - turned away in disgust. The same could happen in New Hampshire.

''Steve Forbes had a terrific message,'' Mr. Russo says. ''No one cared for the messenger. He went overboard on the negatives. People didn't feel comfortable with him.''

His strategy focused on the television tube instead of grass-roots organizations that have long been the basis of winning states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. Lamar Alexander, meanwhile, spent months shaking hands and spreading flannel across the early primary states.

The former governor of Tennessee's stronger than expected third-place finish in the Iowa race underscores to many political analysts that shoe-leather campaigning is still alive.

Yet neither Dole nor Buchanan is going to sit on their Iowa laurels. It remains to be seen if Mr. Alexander can take the momentum he won in the Hawkeye State caucuses and post a strong showing in New Hampshire.

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