On the eve of the biggest political event of the year, Steve Forbes is emerging as the man to watch.
In two separate polls, the wealthy magazine publisher has boosted his position among Iowa voters - and it's even conceivable, some analysts say, that Mr. Forbes could win the Republican presidential straw poll in Ames, Iowa, tomorrow.
One poll, surveying 371 likely straw-poll-goers, shows Forbes in a dead heat with Texas Gov. George W. Bush, at 18 percent and 19 percent respectively. They both trail "undecided," which logged 22 percent, according to the Research 2000 survey.
Another new poll of likely participants in next January's Iowa political caucuses - the first actual nominating event of the 2000 presidential race - shows Forbes moving ahead of former cabinet secretary Elizabeth Dole into second place, behind Governor Bush. Forbes took 15 percent to Bush's 37 percent, according to the poll.
Forbes is very well organized in Iowa, and the straw poll - a mock election, political "beauty contest," and GOP fundraiser all rolled into one - rewards organization.
"I think it will be Bush and Forbes at the top (on Saturday), but I'm still not certain in which order," political analyst Charles Cook said at mid-week, speaking privately at a Dole campaign event here in Iowa.
But no matter how Forbes does on Saturday, he will remain important. His personal wealth is allowing him to operate outside the voluntary federal campaign system. Thus, no spending limits. Forbes is in the race for the long haul and plans to run "comparative" (read: negative) ads against Bush.
Forbes's fellow Bush opponents are counting on the publisher to soften up the front-runner for them. So the key for all the other candidates is to be able to stay in the race long enough to catch a break if Bush stumbles.
For weeks, pundits have been saying that the Ames poll would serve the "winnowing" function that the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have performed in previous campaigns. But one by one, trailing candidates are insisting that they're going to stick it out, no matter what happens in Ames.
Folding their tents?
Among those viewed as likeliest to fold their tents after Ames were former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander and former Vice President Dan Quayle, since they have funding deficits.
Mr. Quayle's campaign manager, Kyle McSlarrow, insists the campaign will keep going. "Do we have as much money as some of the other guys?" he asks. "No. Do we have enough money to do what we need to do? Yeah."
Mr. McSlarrow adds that the straw poll has been a useful exercise in campaign organization, forcing them to put their team together early while preparing for the Iowa caucuses in January.
Another candidate once thought to be in trouble was religious conservative activist Gary Bauer. But he's also well-organized in Iowa, and Mr. Cook, the political handicapper, says Mr. Bauer could emerge from the straw poll among the top of the nine candidates competing. Forbes campaign manager Bill Dal Col agrees.
Bauer has tapped into Iowa's strong church-going population and may lure many many to the straw poll. Ames, after all, was instrumental in the birth of the Christian Coalition, whose founder, the Rev. Pat Robertson, placed second in the Iowa caucuses as a presidential candidate in 1988.
Forbes with the Big Mo
But Forbes remains the man with the Big Mo. He's still charismatically challenged, his stump speech delivered with the same fixed stare and choppy arm movements he deployed in his 1996 run, but here in Iowa, he's as organized as any candidate.
He's got campaign chairmen in all of Iowa's 99 counties, and he has 86 buses lined up to take supporters to Ames.
(None of the other candidates would reveal how many buses they're sending, but it's known that some candidates, such as Mr. Alexander, have canceled buses.)
Forbes also has a golden asset in the person of his state chairman, Steve Grubbs, former head of the Iowa GOP. At an event Wednesday here in Adel, Iowa, a well-manicured suburb of Des Moines, Grubbs took the microphone after Forbes's speech and, like a carnival barker, exhorted the crowd to come to Ames.
Campaign aides distributed Steve Forbes support sign-up cards, offering goodies (a lapel pin) for "supporters" who promise to vote for Forbes in Ames and in the caucus. "Team leaders," who promise to recruit five supporters for the straw poll and the caucus, get the pin, a Forbes 2000 bus-tour T-shirt, and admission to a VIP celebrity reception at the straw poll.
A meaningless event?
Ultimately, many wild-card factors remain for the Ames event, derided by some political analysts and journalists as meaningless and unscientific.
This year, for the first time, only residents of Iowa will be allowed to vote, preventing a repeat of the spectacle four years ago when people were being transported in from out of state.
This year's event is also being held earlier than usual - in August instead of September. It remains highly questionable how many of the "voters" candidates claim they have lined up will actually turn out.
Dan Brown, mayor of Iowa Falls, has been trying to drum up support for Lamar Alexander. But of the 200 people he's called, 50 told him they'd be on vacation.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society