Big money vying with big dreams in Iowa poll today

By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 08/14/99

MES, Iowa - It is undemocratic, inherently unfair, and dominated by big-money candidates unbridled by federal campaign-spending laws. But despite the carnival atmosphere surrounding today's ''straw vote'' of Iowa Republicans, the event has been given so much attention by the candidates that it could make or break several campaigns months before a single real vote is cast.

When 15,000 or so Iowa Republicans pay $25 to vote, with the price refunded by campaigns, the result could determine whether Texas Governor George W. Bush remains as the undisputed front-runner for the party's presidential nomination or whether the contest is recast as a tight race.

It also could determine whether candidates such as Lamar Alexander and former vice president Dan Quayle have enough support to maintain a viable candidacy.

Elizabeth H. Dole, who is spending about $200,000 on her effort, blamed the media yesterday for hyping the event, but said, ''It's become important.'' As she greeted workers at the Sigler printing plant here, she urged them to ''break the glass ceiling and make history.''

Bush is taking no chances. He is spending more than $750,000 in an effort to bus in 5,000 Iowans to vote for him, including $43,000 just to rent a prime swath of grass outside the Iowa State University coliseum where the vote will be held.

Bush's expenditure is extraordinary considering that presidential candidates who accept federal matching funds are barred by law from spending more than $1.2 million in Iowa throughout the campaign, including during next year's crucial caucuses. But Bush is allowed to ignore that law because he is not accepting matching funds.

Similarly, millionaire publisher Steve Forbes, who is using his personal fortune to finance the race, is skipping the federal funds so he can spend to his heart's content in Iowa and elsewhere. And Forbes is spending here - at least $1.5 million, and perhaps much more. As a result, he is given the best chance of upsetting Bush or making it close.

This is bad news for the rest of the Republican field, most of which has far less money and little inclination to blow so much cash on a straw poll that they later can claim was meaningless.

Unless Bush is upset, the straw poll may have the biggest impact on the campaigns of Alexander, the former Tennessee governor, and Quayle. Both men have spent weeks in the state and are well-known, and a finish in fourth place or worse could seriously hurt their fund-raising and thus their campaigns.

Alexander, in an interview at the pork tent at the state fair in Des Moines, already has his spin ready in the event of a Bush victory. ''Money talks a lot more in a straw poll in one place than it does in 2,100 precincts on a cold night in January,'' Alexander said, contrasting today's contest with the caucus.

A wild card of the straw vote may be Gary Bauer, a former Reagan domestic policy aide who previously ran the conservative think tank Family Research Council. There is widespread speculation that Bauer is drawing support from church-based groups, but Bauer has declined to make any prediction about his strength.

Dole, meanwhile, is playing down the event, having spent little money here. Dole is running second or third in most polls, but the straw vote is a bigger test of money and organization than popularity.

Even though her husband, Bob Dole, tied to win the straw poll in 1995 and won the Iowa caucus, many of his supporters have scattered to other candidates.

The other candidates on the straw poll ballot include: Senator John McCain of Arizona, who is not competing because he opposes subsidies for corn-based ethanol that are popular here; radio host Alan Keyes, who is hoping for a strong showing from antiabortion Iowans; and Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who got into the race July 1.

Many observers find it galling that the presidential campaign is being influenced so much by a fund-raising affair for the Iowa Republican Party, which will receive the $25 paid by each person who participates in today's poll. It is hard to imagine a less democratic exercise. Less than one-half of 1 percent of the Republicans in a state that is nearly all-white and has a 2.5 percent unemployment rate will vote in a nonbinding contest.

Moreover, the rules allow the Bush and Forbes campaigns to outspend their rivals by millions of dollars. For example, Forbes has not only been crisscrossing the state, but also flooding the airwaves with television commercials. That is the sort of expenditure that usually occurs in the closing days of a campaign, not on the eve of a straw poll 15 months before Election Day.

GOP leaders said the straw vote is fairer than in 1995, when people from outside Iowa were allowed to participate. But while this year's event is restricted to Iowa residents, the voting takes place only at one location, meaning that many people must travel for several hours each way to vote.

That has led the campaigns to rent seemingly every bus in Iowa, and hundreds from other states, in order to provide transportation for supporters. The campaigns also are springing for food, music, and celebrities to entertain the crowds.

For the candidates, the reality is that Campaign 2000 is starting early because it is expected to be over so early. With such a compressed primary schedule, a nominee in each party probably will be selected within four to six weeks of the Iowa caucus, which is to be held in late January or early February.