A win is a win is a win.
No matter how you slice the numbers from the Iowa presidential straw poll, Texas Gov. George W. Bush came in first, burnishing his aura of invincibility in the race for the Republican nomination.
But there were many other claims on victory at the carnival-like mock election held in the sports coliseum at Iowa State University in Ames: Steve Forbes, the biggest spender here, laid solid claim to the No. 2 slot, bringing him one step closer to his next goal - going one-on-one with Govenor Bush.
Elizabeth Dole, the third-place finisher, reinvigorated her chances in the GOP presidential sweepstakes with a solid showing. She got 3,410 votes, versus 7,418 for Bush and 4,921 for Mr. Forbes. Mrs. Dole also placed first among those candidates abiding by voluntary federal spending limits - all but Bush and Forbes. Her expenditure of $250,000 was dwarfed by Bush's (over $750,000) and Forbes's (well over $1 million, including an expensive TV ad campaign).
Historically, the Iowa straw poll, Iowa caucuses, and New Hampshire primary each issue three "tickets" out of the exit gates - that is, the top three finishers continue to be taken seriously in the nomination fight.
But here in Ames, the fourth-place finisher, conservative activist Gary Bauer, won the "straw poll of the religious right" and could remain a potent force for months to come.
"Is there enough oxygen left for Bauer to keep going?" asks political analyst Stu Rothenberg. "Given the nature of his campaign, yes."
Mr. Bauer's constituency, based heavily in evangelical churches, comes from a doggedly committed wing of the party, where concern over abortion and morals drives political action.
Taken literally, Ames doesn't quite qualify as a victory for democracy and political action. It had the feel of an election: Voters had to prove Iowa residency and stamp their thumbs with red ink to prevent enthusiasts from voting "early and often," as happened four years ago.
But the poll was, at heart, an inherently undemocratic event. (The one Republican candidate who skipped Ames, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, called it a "scam.") Voters were practically bought and paid for, lured in from all over the state with free food and entertainment.
Still, nearly 25,000 "voters" showed up from all over the state, well over double the number who came in 1996 (and then, voters were bused and flown in from other states). On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in August, Iowans could have found many other ways to amuse themselves. And yet, they came to Ames in droves, many with children in tow.
Before the voting began, Ed and Susan Schoenberg of Ankeny, Iowa, hung around the edges of the Dole tent, waiting for the candidate to speak. They wanted to hear her views on education and other family issues. But even with two tickets paid for by Dole's campaign, they weren't sure their three kids would make it through the long lines to let mom and dad vote.
"I'm glad we came anyway," says Mr. Schoenberg, research manager at a food ingredient company. "I wanted my kids to see this."
Elizabeth Dole has proved to be a particular magnet for people previously disengaged from politics, especially young women. After the poll, the former American Red Cross chief declared that "about 50 percent of the people who voted for me are new to the process, and it appears that two-thirds of our voters are women.''
For the families who came to Ames, it also didn't hurt that Forbes, the ultra-wealthy publisher, had set up an entire amusement park for kids, in addition to an air-conditioned tent with French doors. Supporters of other candidates happily availed themselves of Forbes's largess, even while expressing disdain for his tactics.
"I don't think you should be able to buy the presidency of the United States," says Don Tietz, a businessman from Algona, Iowa, while cooling off in Forbes's tent. He had voted for Lamar Alexander, one of the candidates expected to drop out of the race after a sixth-place finish, with 6 percent of the vote.
Some analysts argue that Bush, in fact, didn't do as well as he should have in winning only 31 percent of the vote. "He didn't even get close to 50 percent," says Arthur Miller, a political scientist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
But sliced differently, Bush and his campaign did impressive work. The campaign has been active in the state for only two months, and the candidate himself had spent less than 10 days in Iowa since he entered the race.
So the real story, say observers of the poll, is not just that Bush won, but how well-organized most of the other campaigns were in mobilizing their forces. In fact, if the Iowa straw poll continues to grow exponentially, the state GOP may have to find a new venue.
But then, four years from now, there could be a whole new ballgame. Perhaps another state Republican Party - say, New Hampshire's - will decide to steal some of Iowa's thunder and run a straw poll in July of 2003.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society