Once upon a time, the Iowa Republican Party would hold a summer meeting in Ames to raise money and fire up support for the presidential nominating caucuses six months later. A feature of the meeting was a meaningless straw poll of those in attendance, who would listen to presidential candidates and vote their preferences.
The Ames straw poll changed dramatically four years ago when Sen. Phil "Ready Money" Gramm of Texas bused in supporters from out of state and spent $800,000 to tie Bob Dole for votes. Senator Gramm never got the boost he needed, however, and his candidacy faded early in the race.
This year's straw poll, set for Aug. 14, looked like a popularity contest among alternatives to the front-runner, Gov. George W. Bush, also of Texas. Governor Bush was widely expected to skip the poll. Then he suddenly decided to enter, and the straw poll was transformed into a possibly campaign-ending contest for many of the GOP presidential wannabes.
Candidates are likely to spend up to $3 million on the event, money few besides Bush and publisher Steve Forbes can afford. The Bush campaign paid $44,000 to rent 60,000 square feet just outside the center where the straw poll will be held.
The sudden, disproportionate importance of the Ames straw poll results from the telescoping of the presidential nominating process. By 1996, a primary season that used to last from February to June had been crammed into six weeks. This year it will be even shorter, with more states - such as California and Michigan - moving their contests into March and February to attract the kind of candidate attention that usually goes to the Hawkeye State and New Hampshire.
But the opposite seems to be happening. Now many candidates may not even make it as far as the New Hampshire primary, which used to draw everyone. Instead, they may be weeded out by a beauty contest in which a self-selected, unrepresentative group of Iowa Republicans doesn't even select convention delegates. And all of this well over a year before the November 2000 election itself.
This week, for example, two Republicans dropped out of the nomination race: Rep. John Kasich of Ohio endorsed Bush; Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire left the GOP and may run on a third-party ticket.
This hardly seems like the best way to choose a presidential candidate. Republicans (and Democrats, too) ought to think through the ramifications of where this process is going.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society