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Despite Bush lead, Iowa contest still `fluid' for GOP hopefuls. Dole's `home field' edge and other factors defy facile forecasting

Political insiders now ask three pivotal questions about Iowa's all-important Republican presidential caucuses next February. First, can Sen. Robert Dole, who comes from nearby Kansas, use his ``home field'' advantage to upset Vice-President George Bush? Experts say his chances look good.

Second, will any of the other five principal Republican candidates suddenly catch fire? Among the group, former Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV of Delaware and retired Gen. Alexander Haig Jr. appear to be making progress.

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Third, could the Rev. Pat Robertson surprise the field by turning out thousands of evangelicals and ``pro-life'' voters? One leading Republican state official says he has ``sleepless nights'' worrying about that possibility.

Despite Mr. Bush's current lead in the polls, Iowans describe the Republican contest as ``fluid'' and ``unpredictable.''

The growing field of Republican candidates has increased the sense of uncertainty among campaign planners. Donald J. Devine, a Dole adviser, looks at the long list of contenders and says: ``I worry about all of them.''

Although Iowans do not vote for another eight months, the intensity of the campaign has risen in recent weeks. Bush has come under increasing attack. Partisanship is growing, and former Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, one of the candidates, warned that self-inflicted wounds could eventually hurt the party's chances against the Democrats.

A member of the GOP central committee for Iowa says Dole supporters clashed sharply with state party officials on Sunday when the Dole camp made preparations to stage a rally for their candidate at the Midwestern Republican Leadership Conference. Dole backers also wanted to unfurl banners for their man during Bush's keynote address at a luncheon on Saturday during the same conference.

``We almost had to throw the Dole people out of the hotel,'' a party insider says. ``They knew that sort of thing was prohibited by the rules, but they tried to do it anyway.''

Yet if there is one thing that worries some Republicans more than a sharp Dole-Bush clash, it is Mr. Robertson, the Christian broadcaster.

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Robertson vows to turn out 70,000 people for the Iowa caucuses - a prospect that chills his opponents. Ordinarily, about 100,000 Republicans vote in the Iowa caucuses. Even if Robertson's people were all newcomers to the process, 70,000 votes would put him in first place.

Robertson's claims are looked at here with skepticism. He remains well down in the polls, getting only 3 percent in one recent poll and 5 percent in another. Yet the political enthusiasm of the religious right and the determination of right-to-life voters whom Robertson could rally add uncertainty to the Iowa voting.

Based on interviews with party activists from many parts of the state, here is the current outlook for each of the seven major Republicans.

George Bush. Polls give him about 30 percent of the vote, with a 7-point lead over Senator Dole, who is in second place. Bush is the best organized by far, with one activist commenting: ``The vice-president really has the only organization. It has been in place since 1980, when Bush beat Reagan here.'' Yet Bush remains vulnerable. The Iran-contra affair could hurt. To a large extent, his prospects rise and fall with those of President Reagan.

Robert Dole. Three hundred cheering, enthusiastic Kansas volunteers swarmed like cicadas all over the Midwestern Republican conference here during the past few days. When Dole was introduced, they marched around, kazoos honking, signs waving, to cheer their candidate, even though their demonstration violated party rules. This gung-ho attitude, which Kansans have shown all across Iowa, has already boosted Dole here. Further, as one Iowa Republican said: ``Isn't it time for a president from the Midwest?''

Pete du Pont. ``He's making a lot of friends here,'' concedes a consultant for another candidate. Mr. du Pont will soon begin an intense organizing effort in four or five counties to try out different strategies. Meanwhile, his low-key style and his willingness to take controversial stands are making a favorable impression on Iowa Republicans, party activists say.

Jack Kemp. So far, the New York congressman appears to have made little progress in Iowa, despite frequent visits. That puzzles some here, who had expected Kemp to challenge Bush and Dole for the lead. One activist says that Kemp's New York background (he represents a Buffalo district) may be working against him. ``It makes him slightly suspect,'' says a Republican from a small farming town. Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa says Kemp's speeches may be too esoteric. But Kemp's potential in Iowa remains great, insiders say.

Pat Robertson. His major problem will be expanding his reach beyond right-wing religionists, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic. While Robertson's hard core of support gives him an advantage in a caucus-type setting (where only activists bother to vote), he is expected to do less well in primaries, where turnout is much higher. One reason: Of all the GOP candidates, Robertson has the greatest number of Republicans (29 percent) who have an unfavorable opinion of him, according to a just-released New York Times poll.

Alexander Haig. His self-deprecating humor, experience, and speaking style are all making good impressions on Iowans. The question: Can the former secretary of state overcome his ``take charge'' reputation from an episode at the White House on the day Reagan was shot? Like Robertson, Haig's unfavorable rating is relatively high. The favorable-unfavorable ratings for each candidate in the Times poll was: Haig, 37 favorable/20 unfavorable; Robertson, 14/29; Bush, 46/15; Dole, 29/10; Kemp, 18/5; Laxalt, 8/4; du Pont, 5/2. Those with extremely low ratings in both categories are simply not known.

Paul Laxalt. The ``best friend'' and ideological alter ego of Reagan has concentrated on raising money. But he vows to campaign extensively in Iowa. His popularity has not been tested extensively, but the other campaigns admit that he has great potential with conservatives and with party insiders. Senator Laxalt made only a modest impression here at the weekend conference. ``He didn't seem to have much to say about the issues,'' one delegate complained.

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