|THE SEASON BEGINS|
January 24, 2000
GWEN IFILL: After months of speeches, debates and television ads, campaign 2000 officially gets under way tonight. That's when Republicans and Democrats in Iowa cast the first actual votes in the presidential nominating process. We hear from three political reporters who have come to know Iowa, and the candidates: Elizabeth Arnold of National Public Radio, Ron Brownstein of the "Los Angeles Times," and David Broder of the "Washington Post."
David Broder, you've described this race in Iowa, this decision as an elimination contest, that is to say that anyone who doesn't survive here and live up to certain expectations may not be around to get to New Hampshire.
DAVID BRODER: I think that's right. Of course, there are only two candidates on the Democratic side, so not likely that either of them will be eliminated. But they can certainly be affected by the margins between Gore and Bradley. But on the Republican side with six people running, the history, Gwen, would suggest that probably not more than three will look as if they have a realistic chance of winning after tonight.
GWEN IFILL: David, the Iowa caucuses are very different from a regular primary. Can you explain to us how?
DAVID BRODER: Well, it's a public process that takes place in people's living rooms or in church basements or town halls. You don't vote. You actually sort of huddle up with others who share the same candidate preference that you do, and then you're counted by heads. It's a very different kind of protracted and public process, very different from going to a polling place on primary day and casting a secret ballot.
GWEN IFILL: So Elizabeth Arnold, what's the buzz out there? The front-runners seem to be both in a race here, but against complacency as much as anything else.
ELIZABETH ARNOLD: Well, that's what they're both saying as they court the voters these last couple days, "Please turn out. Please turn out." They're more worried about complacency than snow flurries at this point, Gwen. There isn't that much drama. I would argue there was more suspense during the Iowa straw poll last summer when two Republicans were knocked out, Dan Quayle and Lamar Alexander. Since then, in the Republican race, Governor George Bush has held on to a comfortable lead and really the only interesting development over the last couple days is the issue of abortion. He's taken a beating on it from both the press and his rivals, not surprisingly Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, Orrin Hatch and Alan Keyes are going after him on that issue because it plays well here in Iowa with social conservatives. That's who they're aiming to win.
GWEN IFILL: Ron Brownstein, by any measure we're all hanging on the edge of our seats here to see what a very small group of Iowa voters decide who survives and who lives and who dies. Who are these Iowa voters, and who will be voting tonight?
RON BROWNSTEIN: Well, you know, in both parties it's an overwhelmingly white electorate. In the Republican Party, it's an unusually strong presence of religious conservative, very strong religious conservative movement here and in that sense is more of a predictor of the south and the southern primaries than it is of New Hampshire which is a much more secular electorate. On the Democratic side, you have a pretty blue-collar electorate, again, different than New Hampshire -- very strong union presence. And a kind of on the Democratic side, a kind of constituency and a voting population that tends to favor, as Bill Bradley has said, establishment candidates. So it's a pretty good environment for Al Gore here. New Hampshire is a very different place. The challenge is very different. And that's one of the reasons why Iowa's impact on New Hampshire has been hit or miss over the years. There have been a number of candidates that have lost here who have come back the win in New Hampshire. So even if gore and bush win tonight, they still have to face that challenge over the next week.
GWEN IFILL: Dave Broder, you've talked about the one-two punch, Iowa being two bites of the apple. Iowa got the straw poll last August. Iowa gets this first vote this time. Is that a little bit too much?
DAVID BRODER: Well, I think other states are becoming a little bit jealous of Iowa. I've always defended Iowa and New Hampshire as good places to begin this nominating process -- largely because the voters in those two states really do take their responsibilities seriously. But Iowa on the Republican side has contrived to get two bites of the apple -- in the summer of the pre-election year with the straw poll, and then they come back and have the first caucuses of the year. If the results in the caucuses tonight are the mirror image of what they were last August in the straw poll, I think there will be some pressure on Iowa Republicans to say, "choose one on the other, but don't hog them both."
GWEN IFILL: Elizabeth, yesterday was the 27th anniversary of Roe Versus Wade, and predictably, abortion has been a big issue in the campaign trail the last few days. Who does that hurt, and who does that happen?
ELIZABETH ARNOLD: So far it's hurt Governor Bush, although you can argue that doesn't really matter because his lead is so comfortable. But what's interesting, I think, about Iowa, too, Gwen, is that we've watched these candidates evolve during this process, and it's been quite interesting to watch Governor Bush over the last couple days. He was asked about abortion during a press conference. His rivals immediately pounced on some of his answers, and he ceased all press conferences after that. So it's interesting to see how he's handling some scrutiny that he's not really been accustomed to dealing with. I'd also say that Vice President Al Gore has evolved as a candidate here. He had a closer race than he does now. He's out on the stump, and he hasn't missed an opportunity to jump on Senator Bradley, who has made some unfortunate missteps. He talked about Iowa rewarding entrenched power. A day hasn't gone by since -- Vice President Al Gore has brought that up. So it's interesting to see that perhaps we know the outcome here, but we're all kind of watching how these candidates learn from their missteps, how they handle themselves and how comfortable they are in their own skin.
GWEN IFILL: Ron Brownstein, there seems to be a lot of subplots that we're watching for tonight. I'm wondering if we're watching independent vote centers Iowa the way we would in another state. Is that up in the air at all?
RON BROWNSTEIN: Not as influential for the reason David suggested before. The caucus is more partisan. You know, the subplots might be how Iowa does or does in the affect New Hampshire. We've had examples of candidates getting a boost out of here -- Gary Hart in 1984, Pat Buchanan in 1996. More often New Hampshire has sort of gone its own way. One candidate to watch in those terms might be Steve Forbes. I think most of the range of expected options for Governor Bush in terms of how he might finish unless it's a big surprise up or down, it will probably not affect his standing in New Hampshire very much one way or the other. The way the Republican race might get affected is if Steve Forbes or even Alan Keyes gets some momentum out of Iowa because right now, Gwen, in New Hampshire, Bush is depending on conservative votes to remain competitive with john McCain. He's doing very well with independents and very well with moderate Republicans. If Forbes or Keyes generates momentum and moves up in the polls in New Hampshire, they could begin to cut in from Bush on the other side, and he may begin to face a little bit of a squeeze up there. So I think the Bush forces will be watching carefully the margin but to see where Steve Forbes finishes himself tonight.
GWEN IFILL: David Broder, a little bit more on subplots. When we talk about George W. Bush and the Republican side being challenged by Steve Forbes or at least Steve Forbes trying to hold on to a really solid second place, there's almost a second Republican primary going on involving Orrin Hatch, Gary Bauer, and Alan Keyes, not necessarily in that order.
DAVID BRODER: Well, if you can judge from appearances in these final days, it's Alan Keyes whose rhetoric has really fired up the hard-core religious conservative group. You know, Gwen, we've been saying for many months now that Republicans, including conservative Republicans, are very practical this year. They really want to back somebody who can win against the Democrats in November. I think that's generally true. But there a hard-core ideological group that's centered on the issue of abortion particularly in Iowa that will go for the candidate that's the single most fervent advocate of their moral viewpoint. And I believe that Alan Keyes perhaps has captured that prize against the challenge of Gary Bauer and Orrin Hatch.
GWEN IFILL: Elizabeth Arnold, one of the things which reporters have encountered time and time again on this campaign trail is this whole idea of people saying, "I'm voting for the lesser of two evils. I don't like any of these guys." Is it like that this year, too?
ELIZABETH ARNOLD: No. In voter interviews, both in Iowa and New Hampshire, Gwen, the one thing I've been surprised by is you always get people who say, "I don't like the choices, or I really don't like this guy so I'm going to vote for that guy." I haven't encountered that at all. I had a woman who said... She said, "well, I'm thinking about Governor Bush, but I also like this McCain. And you know, Bradley's not such a bad guy either." She went down the whole list and said, "you know, we're really fortunate. We've got a great field here."
GWEN IFILL: Ron Brownstein, let's look ahead to New Hampshire. John McCain, who we assume will be number two in New Hampshire, hasn't been in Iowa at all. What is his... What factor is he playing in this race? Is he sitting back or regretting that he didn't campaign in Iowa?
RON BROWNSTEIN: No, I don't think he's regretting it at all. I think being in New Hampshire alone for several weeks has allowed him in most polls to open up a lead over Governor Bush -- he's got the media attention to himself. I think, Gwen, this next week under any plausible set of outcomes will be crunch times for both of the insurgents, for both Bill Bradley and for John McCain. Governor Bush and Al Gore are probably not going to be weakened by their showings here tonight, and you've got in each party really, the front-runner had enormous advantages. They have big leads in the national polls. They have all the institutional support. In Bush's case, they have lots of money. Both McCain and Bradley need to upset the national dynamic. The best chance they have to do it is New Hampshire. In most surveys. Gore has taken the lead over Bradley. But it's clearly still within reach for Bradley. So I think that this week really is shaping up as a make-or-break challenge for these challengers that will tell us whether they have the capacity to really make this a competitive race down the line in February and March.
GWEN IFILL: David Broder, briefly, crunch time in New Hampshire?
DAVID BRODER: Yes, in New Hampshire. I think Ron's exactly right. These next seven or eight days are going to be critical. And Wednesday flight debates in both parties on the biggest television station in the state, that will probably have more influence on the New Hampshire outcome than anything that we learned tonight from Iowa.
GWEN IFILL: David Broder, Ron Brownstein and Elizabeth Arnold, thank you all very much.