Posted on August 17, 1999

The Real

Iowa Straw Poll



You probably think by now that you've heard too much about the August 14th Iowa straw poll, and you may be right. But part of the reason is that you've been listening to the wrong people. The Shinbone has been listening to the mainstream media analyze this event. What it has heard is a lot of mindless yammering. The importance of this gathering, which is more a barbecue than a political contest, has been completely overblown, and analysts seem to have no idea how to tell who won and who lost, other than from the results of a ballot which, by design, is rigged.

The following is The Shinbone's view of the nine candidates which remained in the race prior to the poll, and who really won and lost, not merely in the vote tabulations, but in the broader context of the 2000 campaign.


Lamar Alexander--The day after the ballot was taken, he withdrew from the race. The poor sap, he took this thing seriously. --- Previous efforts to add excitement to his personality having failed (1996 campaign slogan: "Lamar!"), Gov. Alexander shed his checkered shirt and stopped trying to play the role of the political outsider, which, of course, he is not. --- Unfortunately, his excessively folksy '96 image, while itself phony, was created in recognition of a simple truth: he's boring. --- To compensate, apparently, for the lack of boldness in his agenda, he tends to bounce violently in his chair while speaking, as if that will lend added force to his statements. --- Aside from his inability to distinguish himself from the rest of the field, Alexander's campaign may have fallen victim to exhaustion. He'd basically been campaigning since 1997.

Gary Bauer--The superficiality of the straw poll actually works out to his benefit, because he was having so much trouble being treated as a serious candidate by the media. Also, the appearance that he is now the frontrunner among conservative outsiders could win him endorsements and campaign donations, to the detriment of Buchanan and Keyes. --- If this mild-mannered leader of the hyper-feared Religious Right establishes himself as a contender, newspaper editors and TV analysts will have a difficult time portraying him as the fire-breathing, sadistic maniac they want them to be, but The Shinbone is confident that they'll find a way.

Pat Buchanan--He lives for these types of events. An unfriendly press has seen to it that Buchanan is thought to be a monster by millions of people who have never even seen him, so he relishes every chance he gets to be the life of the barbecue, especially when there are cameras around. --- With so many candidates striking the same themes in their speeches, he stood apart from the others by slamming current trade policies, which are the economic equivalent of unilateral disarmament. --- Memo to W.: If you believe your father's excuse that his 1992 defeat was caused by Pat's convention speech, then challenging the Crossfire co-host to a debate would be an ideal way to separate yourself from his "extremism," wouldn't you think?

George W. Bush--His campaign wasn't necessarily hurt by anything that happened over the weekend in Ames, but the vague optimism which has buoyed him may be starting to dissipate on a national level, dispersed by concerns over whatever his definition of "young and crazy" might be. --- The Cocaine Question, as it was posed by the Washington Post, was irresponsible, and unless the Post can demonstrate that there was a basis for asking the question, Bush was right not to answer. (Needless to say, if there is a basis for it, he should withdraw immediately.) His own coyness, however, is partly responsible for the confrontation. --- Bush should take this situation as a warning. Just because the media want him to be the nominee doesn't mean they like him. They're just waiting for the right moment to strike. If there's anything in his past that could scuttle his campaign, reporters will discover it in time to save Al Gore.

Elizabeth Dole--If you've been uncynically watching CNN, you are certain that she was the big winner in Iowa, and that the only thing standing between her and the White House is her opponents' money. --- Dole is quick to point out that the only candidates who finished ahead of her, Bush and Forbes, spent a lot more than anyone else. But if that is so significant, and it is, how much can it mean that she finished ahead of all the candidates who spent less than she did? --- Her carefully honed image, sort of a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald McDonald, can only carry her so far. Eventually, she's going to be challenged on the issues, and her statements on gun control are enough to bounce her from any GOP primary. The first time an opponent turns her hugfest with Rosie O'Donnell into a campaign add, she is doomed. --- Dole's third-place finish was actually the product of desperation. Candidates who accept federal matching funds are only allowed to spend so much on campaigning in each state, so in buying a strong finish in the straw poll, she left herself less money to campaign before the Iowa Caucus, where the votes will be taken for real. It is worth it to her, though, to sacrifice Iowa in exchange for reinvigorating her languid national campaign.

Steve Forbes--He should have saved some of that "hope, growth and opportunity," that he used up in '96. That phrase has not often been heard from Forbes in recent months, nor has the flat tax plan which embodies it. True, his obsession with that issue hurt him in the last campaign by obscuring his stands on other issues (e.g., his position on abortion, which was widely misperceived by allies and enemies alike), but being willing to speak on a variety of matters does not require him to abandon his central theme. --- If he's going to be cast as the evil guy with all the money, then he should at least take that as an opportunity to remind people that he understands the way money works.

Orrin Hatch--Ted Kennedy's favorite Republican probably gained the most of anyone from this event, for the simple reason that he got to introduce himself, on his own terms, to a national audience that doesn't know much about him. --- Hatch's speech was just what GOP primary voters wanted to hear, as he professed to the audience his conservative beliefs (which The Shinbone accepts as, tragically, genuine) on every issue from abortion to taxes, without explaining how willing he has been to bargain those beliefs away. --- Senator Hatch prides himself on being a "consensus-builder," able to influence liberals to move to the center. But how far to the left must one move in order to arrive at the center between oneself and a Massachusetts Democrat?

Alan Keyes--As always, he delivered the best speech of the event, despite a couple uncharacteristic missteps. ("I will not be bought and sold on the auction block of our freedom." Eh? Oh, well...even Bob Vila mashes his thumb on occasion.) --- All eight candidates who spoke in Iowa promised to cut taxes, but Keyes went several steps farther than that, arguing that the income tax is fundamentally unjust, and must be abolished. --- No matter what his poll numbers, he is in this race to the end, as he was in 1996. Hopefully, this will rekindle the debate, which Republicans were supposed to have held by now, between a national sales tax, which Keyes favors, and a flat income tax. --- If the former ambassador to the U.N. does not win the nomination, and his chances are remote, his strong showings in events like this are making him an appealing choice to become our next Secretary of State.

John McCain--Complaining that the straw poll is the sham that it is, Senator McCain refused to attend. He would have been better off taking the Quayle approach, taking the opportunity to show up and give a speech, without spending any money on votes. --- McCain must realize that he has forfeited the Iowa Caucus by offending that state's peculiar but jealously guarded political traditions. What did he have so much better to do than to show up, shake a few hands, pose with a pig, and then eat it? That doesn't seem like too much to ask.

Dan Quayle--The former Vice President, who finished eighth in the poll, is being billed as the big loser, and he may be, if his strategy backfires. --- Approaching the event with the reverse of the Dole philosophy, he sacrificed the straw poll in order to conserve resources for the caucus. The trouble is, his poor showing may cause his supporters to abandon him before the real vote ever happens. If he survives, though, with most of his finances earmarked for Iowa still in reserve, the caucus could be the breakthrough his campaign needs. --- One proviso, however...he cannot win the nomination with tepid speeches like the one he gave in Ames. If he tries to be too careful with his words, he will lose supporters to the more fervent appeals from Keyes, Buchanan and Bauer.


Summary--As usual at an event that presents all the candidates in the same forum, the straw poll benefited those who needed exposure (Bauer, Hatch and Keyes) and did nothing to help the frontrunner, Bush, who will drift back closer to the pack with every straw poll, debate, or other event that treats him as just another candidate. Although he has failed to excite anyone the way he did in '96, Forbes comes out a winner, because he is now perceived as Bush's nearest challenger, although polling has consistently shown him battling Quayle and McCain for third. Both Dole and Quayle have taken gambles. Their results are ambiguous until the results are in from next year's caucus. Buchanan performed tremendously, although he has been so consistently maligned over the years that he is unlikely to gain any traction. McCain may have hoped he would be conspicuous by his absence, but nobody seems to have missed him.




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