TOPICS > Politics

Iowa: Field of Dreams

January 30, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: For sheer size, Alaska is by far the nation’s largest state, but with a population of only 1/2 million and fewer than 10,000 votes cast, the significance of Alaska’s Republican Presidential straw poll is difficult to judge. The three-day event ended at midnight last night, with Pat Buchanan receiving 33 percent of the vote and Steve Forbes less than 200 votes behind with 31 percent. Bob Dole, considered by most political observers to be the front- runner for the Republican Presidential nomination, finished a distant third, with 17 percent of the vote. Buchanan called the results startling. Forbes claimed he’s gaining momentum and ignoring Buchanan, pronounced the Republican nomination campaign now a one-on-one race with Bob Dole. In Iowa today, Dole, who unlike the other candidates didn’t campaign in Alaska, said the straw poll results were not particularly significant.

SEN. ROBERT DOLE, Republican Presidential Candidate: Forbes spent a lot of money up in Alaska on television, and I didn’t get to Alaska, because of our budget talks.

KWAME HOLMAN: But it appears Dole at least is taking seriously both the Forbes candidacy and his call for a flat tax.

SEN. ROBERT DOLE: (January 19) You ask him about your headache, he gives you the flat tax message. I mean, the flat tax will cure everything according to Steve Forbes. It’ll cure any problem he has with taxes, but I’m not certain that’s what the American people want.

KWAME HOLMAN: But that’s what Forbes wants to talk about, and he’s been doing most of it in New Hampshire.

STEVE FORBES, Republican Presidential Candidate: (Yesterday) My opponents in Washington and out are starting to throw a lot of fear and a lot of mud the flat tax’s way, because they don’t want you to understand it, because if you do, you’ll see that the only people who lose are those who make their living in Washington off the tax code, the special interests, the lawyers, and the lobbyists.

KWAME HOLMAN: With the New Hampshire primary three weeks away, a just-released poll of 450 likely Republican primary voters shows 29 percent favoring Dole, 18 percent for Forbes, and 13 percent for Buchanan. But another poll of 550 Republicans and independents likely to vote in the Republican primary shows 29 percent favoring Forbes, 24 percent for Dole, and 11 percent for Buchanan. With the poll’s margin for error factored in, that’s a statistical dead heat between Forbes and Dole, but Dole says he isn’t concerned.

SEN. ROBERT DOLE: Polls are somewhat deceptive from time to time. As long as we feel comfortable with our organization and with our strategy, then I’m not going to worry about polls.

KWAME HOLMAN: But part of Dole’s strategy is to attack Steve Forbes in television ads that began in Iowa today.

JIM LEHRER: Now, how all of this looks to three veteran political reporters: David Broder of the “Washington Post,” Dave Yepsen of the “Des Moines Register,” and Elizabeth Arnold of National Public Radio. Elizabeth, how do you read these new poll results, Dole versus Forbes, et cetera?

ELIZABETH ARNOLD, National Public Radio: Well, I think what’s more interesting and perhaps more accurate from these polls is the second headline, and the second headline is when they asked people who said they liked a specific candidate how they felt, how they characterized their support for these candidates, no one used the word “strong,” or no great numbers used the word “strong,” so I think that they were more actually indicative of volatility out there and that this thing is still wide open.


DAVID BRODER, Washington Post: There’s nobody in the Dole campaign up in New Hampshire who thinks that Dole has a two to one lead. I don’t know what the actual race is but I agree with Elizabeth, it is a real race now in New Hampshire, and it may be more than a two-way race, because the ferocity with which Forbes and Dole are attacking each other on television may make it possible for somebody else to move up.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Dave Yepsen in Iowa, what’s it look like as we–you’re two weeks away now. How does it look to you in Iowa?

DAVID YEPSEN, Des Moines Register: (Des Moines) Well, I think Sen. Dole has got some problems here. He has had a limited amount of campaign time in Iowa, because of his budget negotiations in Washington. And now he’s got the weather that is terrible out here and is forcing him to cancel trips. I know his people are very worried. The polls here show him slipping, and they show Steve Forbes gaining, and I think that Sen. Dole and his people are a little nervous about what could happen. We’ve always known that there will be two stories to come out of Iowa, whether Bob Dole is a strong front-runner and secondly, who comes in second. And I think right now the verdict out of Iowa could easily be that Bob Dole is a weak front-runner.

JIM LEHRER: Well, back to the general picture, again, with you again, Elizabeth, on the–you said that these polls are really showing that things are volatile. Is this a result of negatives about Dole or positives about Forbes, or how would you interpret this?

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: I don’t think it’s due to any cataclysmic event. I think that if you go months back and you talk to Dole voters in both Iowa and New Hampshire, there was a sense of inevitability. There was also a sense of resignation. No one was–

JIM LEHRER: An inevitability that Dole was going to be the leader, or–

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: That he was the leader and that he was going to be the best, and, and there wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm. He’s not exactly saying that much that’s different from the rest of the candidates. He talks about shifting responsibility from the federal government to the states. Beyond that, he says, it’s my turn, I’ve carried the water for Republican Presidents, I deserve it, I’ve sacrificed, and that’s not necessarily something for voters to get real enthusiastic about.

JIM LEHRER: And then along comes Forbes, Dave Broder, and what does he come along with that has caught everybody’s attention besides–is it just the flat tax?

DAVID BRODER: Well, this is all retrospective wisdom, but I think in retrospect–

JIM LEHRER: All wisdom is retrospective, David Broder.

DAVID BRODER: I think in retrospect, you can see that Forbes combines three qualities which nobody else in that Republican field has put together. He is an outsider. He has never held public office. Second, he does seem to be genuinely upbeat and optimistic, and just looking at the pictures of Sen. Dole and Sen. Grassley in Iowa, they look dower, they look as if they had been out in very cold weather for a number of days with Yepsen. The third–

JIM LEHRER: Yepsen looks fairly optimistic. (laughing)

DAVID BRODER: The third thing is that he is talking about a tax plan which he says will reduce taxes for everybody. But we’ve known since 1978 that Republicans really get turned on about the prospect of giving everybody, including themselves, a tax cut.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. But Dave Yepsen, one of the complaints that Sen. Dole has made in the last 24 hours is that the reason that Forbes has taken off so is that you all, the National Press, et cetera, has not really covered Forbes, has not really explained the flat tax, has not really gone after him the way you all have everybody else in the race. Is that a fair charge?

DAVID YEPSEN: I think there’s something to that, and I think news organizations are trying to do that now. Certainly, “Fortune” Magazine has done a very critical piece of Mr. Forbes. I think the leading news magazines are, so I think that process is starting, and I think Sen. Dole is hoping that once that vetting occurs that Mr. Forbes will fall down, but I have to tell you that I think–I think David Broder has a very good point when he talks about Steve Forbes’ personal optimism. He’s an upbeat individual. He is friendly. He is warm, and he’s very smart, and that comes through very clearly in these campaign stump appearances that he’s making around Iowa.

JIM LEHRER: Is the outsider thing important in Iowa?

DAVID YEPSEN: The outsider thing is important. The flat tax is important. The money is important, and I think his own demeanor as a candidate is very important. He puts together a nice package that’s attracting a lot of attention.

JIM LEHRER: So, Elizabeth when, going back to your point that Dole says, look, I kind of earned this, I mean, that is working against him now, was I right, because he’s a Washington–he’s the ultimate insider, is that the way he is seen?

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: And Forbes is the ultimate outsider. I mean, you have Lamar Alexander out there talking to people and telling them that he is the outsider, but they associate Lamar Alexander with government. Steve Forbes is really an outsider. He’s the new guy; he’s the fresh face; he’s the Ross Perot at this point.

JIM LEHRER: Is he getting the kind of scrutiny that the other candidates are getting or have gotten, or do you think it’s still to come?

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: I don’t think he’s getting–it’s definitely to come. I mean, and we shouldn’t overlook the amount of money he’s poured into this as well.

JIM LEHRER: Sure, sure.

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: I mean, that’s a very important factor, and–

JIM LEHRER: Now, how important a factor is that?

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: Well, let’s look at it this way. Maurice Taylor, Morry Taylor, the tire magnate, this week will be addressing the New Hampshire legislature. I don’t think it’s necessarily the virtue of the growing support for his ideas. It has to do with the fact that he’s got a lot of money. Jerry Brown peddled the flat tax back in ’92, but he didn’t have as much money as Steve Forbes has to peddle the flat tax.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Is there any way to measure the impact of Steve Forbes’ money on this, in addition to the other things that you’ve just mentioned, David?

DAVID BRODER: Nobody in New Hampshire or Iowa would know about Steve Forbes if he weren’t blanketing the television the way that he is. It is the necessary condition for somebody who has no public identity coming into the race, but I agree with what Yepsen said, that Forbes has now reached the point that he’s actually making votes for himself by his personal campaigning.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Well, let’s go through some of the others in the race, beginning with you, Dave Yepsen. What is happening to the Phil Gramm campaign in Iowa?

DAVID YEPSEN: Well, I think Sen. Gramm has a very good campaign. He is one of the most disciplined campaigners I’ve ever seen in covering these caucuses. He’s quietly going about his business.

JIM LEHRER: What does that mean, discipline in what way?

DAVID YEPSEN: Time on task, his–the appearances, he stays on message, he’s building brick by brick a very good organization. And I think Sen. Gramm will feel like he wins if Bob Dole stumbles in this state. I mean, in a sense, all of the other challengers will have a good experience in Iowa if the verdict out of Iowa is that Bob Dole is no longer the front-runner, then they’ve all got a new lease on life.

JIM LEHRER: Even if the stumble–if he stumbles over Forbes, rather than Gramm, how does that help Gramm?

DAVID YEPSEN: Well, I think it keeps Phil Gramm alive. I mean–and I do think that Phil Gramm will do well in this process because he has a good organization. That’s the one thing Steve Forbes hasn’t been able to buy yet. He’s trying. And that’s a–that’s an organization. Phil Gramm has spent a lot of time here doing one-on-one retail campaigning that pays off.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read the Gramm campaign right now, Elizabeth?

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: I think that’s a great–I think it’s an excellent point. Phil Gramm has spent twice as much time as everybody in that state, and the Iowa caucuses are a test or organization. They’re not like a primary. You have to get somebody up off the couch, into their car, through the snow, to a community hall, a YMCA, some stranger’s home, and they have to stay there for a couple of hours. You really have to have–you have to have an organization so you can just pick up the phone and call these people and tell them to be there. It remains to be seen whether Steve Forbes has that.

JIM LEHRER: But does, does Forbes’s rise help Gramm? Do you agree with Dave Yepsen, that it does in some way, keeps him alive more than he might be otherwise?

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: I don’t–I don’t agree with that. I think that Forbes actually has sort of been the spoiler for all those who wanted the race to be about Dole and them. At this point, we’re all writing stories about Steve Forbes and Bob Dole.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. The Gramm factor, Dave Broder.

DAVID BRODER: Well, Gramm’s theory of the campaign is that he wins it by surviving in the Midwest and the Northeast and winning in the South. The first test for him now comes not in Iowa but in these Louisiana caucuses, where he and Pat Buchanan are the major players.

JIM LEHRER: Now, when are they?

DAVID BRODER: They’re this next Monday, right?


DAVID BRODER: And, and having lost decisively to Buchanan in Alaska, Gramm really has to now come back and show that he is the legitimate conservative choice by doing what he has told everybody he will do, which is to win in Louisiana.

JIM LEHRER: Now, put in Lamar Alexander. Where does he fit into this now, this new world with Forbes?

DAVID BRODER: Well, I can tell you about New Hampshire and David can tell you about Iowa. In New Hampshire, he has not found a niche, as yet. He’s not the moderate candidate, he’s not the outsider candidate.

JIM LEHRER: Dick Lugar is the moderate candidate, right?

DAVID BRODER: At this point.


DAVID BRODER: He’s playing that card.


DAVID BRODER: Having tried several others. (laughing)

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: Thoughtful candidate.

JIM LEHRER: Thoughtful candidate. All right.

DAVID BRODER: But I think Lamar in terms of personality and sort of record is–would be the person who might very well move up if Forbes and Dole did serious damage to each other, but I don’t think he’s found a message in New Hampshire. I don’t think he’s found a niche as yet.

JIM LEHRER: What about in Iowa, Dave?

DAVID YEPSEN: I, I think he’s got message problems here as well. I mean, I think he’s well organized, but he’s not found a good niche here. He certainly has tried. He’s–but I think Steve Forbes has attracted a lot of the moderates that Lamar Alexander was hoping to get. And, and the huge amount of Forbes’ money in this thing has sort of overwhelmed Lamar Alexander, and he’s really never got a chance to lift off. He’s the one candidate among the leaders of this pack of candidates who’s not had his turn as flavor of the month in the race. So perhaps his turn is yet to come.

JIM LEHRER: Elizabeth, what is the attraction of, of Forbes? Why do moderates like Forbes?

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: Well, actually, he hasn’t been real clear about where he stands on a lot of issues like abortion, a lot of social issues that tend to get other Republicans in trouble. And his answer to every question is the flat tax. If you ask him about rising costs of education, he says flat tax. If you ask him about how curing racial tensions, he’ll say the flat tax. So he’s sort of stayed off some of those hot button issues that turn off a lot of Republican moderate voters. But just like I think he’ll–he’s going to–he’s in for a new round of scrutiny, he’s probably in for a new round of those issues being brought up, and, and his being asked more specifically his position on those issues.

JIM LEHRER: David Broder, if you were a headline writer instead of the thoughtful political writer that you are, sir, what headline would you put on where we are now, as far as Bob Dole is concerned? Is he in trouble?

DAVID BRODER: Uh, he acts as if he’s in trouble. He seems quite uncomfortable now in his personal appearances. He still has enormous assets. He is Mr. Republican in this race, and he’s earned that over a long period of time. He has the entire Republican political establishment invested in his campaign.

JIM LEHRER: Every governor, every Senator–

DAVID BRODER: That is right.

JIM LEHRER: Well, not every, but just about every–

DAVID BRODER: I think it would be a terrible mistake if we left the impression that we are writing off Sen. Dole’s chances here, but I have to say he really does seem to be uncomfortable with the way in which this race is developing.

JIM LEHRER: What headline would you put on it, Dave Yepsen?

DAVID YEPSEN: Forbes gaining, Dole slipping, and the sub-head would be that when this campaign is over with, we may look back at that response to the President’s State of the Union message, and say that really was far more important than we thought at the time as a beginning of a bad patch for Bob Dole. That really hurt him. Everyone who had reservations about Bob Dole saw that speech and, and felt like he didn’t live up to the job. It hurt him.

JIM LEHRER: Quickly, Elizabeth. You’re in the sound bite business or headline business. What would you say?

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: I don’t do headlines.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t do headlines. You do sound bites.

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: I would–I think that David makes a very good point. Sen. Dole’s not losing his loyal followers. He’s basically losing the undecideds. He needs those undecideds, and some of them are going to Forbes right now, but he’s not losing anyone right now.

JIM LEHRER: All right, Elizabeth, gentlemen, thank you all three very much.