It's hard to know exactly when it happened, but sometime in the last few weeks the 2000 campaign began. Not the real one, mind you, but a virtual one - a kind of 3-D simulation of a campaign. One where, for some reason, 25,000 Iowans paid $25 each to enter a straw poll to eliminate Dan Quayle, Alan Keyes, and Lamar Alexander from the field of serious Republican presidential candidates. It's akin to spending $25 to make sure the Chicago Cubs don't win the World Series. It's a redundant waste of money.
So just what was Saturday's straw poll, a vote six months before any real primary or caucus, about? After all, in the poll's 20 years of existence, its winner has never gone on to capture the GOP nomination.
Well, as with any virtual reality game, what's real and what's false is really in the minds of those playing and watching and how invested they are in it. And that's the trick. We were all told that Iowa mattered, so it mattered. And the testament to its reality will be the inevitable departures of several candidates.
Still, there's something very virtual going on in the early stages of the 2000 campaign - it seems real, but something's just a bit weird. Already the candidates are dropping out and we know precious little about the field, even those who remain. George W. Bush visited Iowa only nine times, said little about what he actually wants to do as president, and still won by 10 percentage points. Liddy Dole, nice as she is, and finished third, but she also seems to be offering a feel-good candidacy lacking in details.
But topping any list of virtuality has to be second-place finisher Steve Forbes. Can anyone explain how a billionaire with no experience in governing promises to create a flat-tax-something that would benefit him massively - and still manages to sell himself as a man of the people in a farm state? This is a man whose "tent" at Saturday's outdoor event had air-conditioning and French doors. It's enough to make you wonder if it is Mr. Forbes's virtual world and we just live in it.
The chatter around Washington, of course, is that it's all about money. Mr. Bush is out front because he is raising cash as if his life depends on it. And in the longrun, Forbes will be the only serious challenger because he can keep up simply by selling a few shares of Microsoft.
It's hard to argue with that logic. Numbers, after all, don't lie. But they don't give you the whole truth either.
The truth is this campaign will eventually shift from virtual mode and join the rest of us in the real world. And when it does, Forbes's real chances of being elected president will shrink faster than a budget surplus in Congress. His money may keep him around, but this is a man whose message is basically "give me a tax break" and whose charisma rivals that of Al Gore.
When all is said and done, the real winners in Iowa were Bush and the man who didn't show - Arizona Sen. John McCain. By staying away from Ames, Mr. McCain established himself as a man who refuses to pander to voters when he disagrees with them. (He opposes subsidies for ethanol, a fuel additive made from corn that Iowa's farmers understandably like.)
But more important, by skipping Iowa McCain risked nothing and made it clear he is not a supporter of virtual Campaign 2000, something that will stand him in good stead when the real campaign begins and the voters tire of it. For this strategy to work he needs the money to play with Forbes and Bush.
As for Bush, he's got the money, his competition is basically lightweight, and now everyone is talking about his big win. And even though this campaign is in virtual mode, he has to be happy. His hope is that virtual Campaign 2000 continues at this rate and the real GOP contest is over before it even begins.
It's not a bad strategy, but I wouldn't bet on it coming off without a hitch. Real life isn't a virtual reality game; endless challenges wait to unfold.
Don't expect this thing to end before someone introduces a serious twist of reality.
*Dante Chinni is a researcher at the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He has written for The Economist and The New Republic.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society