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Jewish World Review Jan. 27, 2000 /20 Shevat, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Iowa: Ho hum-now for a real election -- CONTRARY TO THE HEADLINES and the conventional impression, it is impossible to win the Iowa caucuses. At least for a front-runner. Which is why it's no big deal when a George W. Bush or Al Gore comes out on top in Iowa. The almost universal reaction to the results of the Iowa caucuses has been the political equivalent of: So what? Only if the front-runners had bottomed out would they have made big news, and for them bad news.

Steve Forbes did well by coming in second, but not as well as his spin made it out. ''I'll take more losses like that,'' he said, ''and I'll win the nomination.'' Mind you, this is the guy in the race who's supposed to know something about math. But not even he can win by losing. They don't give presidential nominations for second place. And with his money, even when Mr. Forbes wins a race, it seems less like a victory than a purchase.

Then there's Alan Keyes, who came in a respectable third in the GOP ranks, with 14 percent of the vote. But is that a tribute to his political skills, or just a third-place trophy for oratory? At least he edged out Gary Bauer as the choice of the GOP's sanctified. Alan Keyes is a good deal more interesting to watch; he thinks, not just orates. Even when he thinks badly, Mr. Keyes interests. He may be the only philosopher in the presidential race, which means he's a foreordained loser in pragmatic America.

On the Democratic side, Al Gore won as expected, and Bill Bradley lost as expected. It's the ''as expected'' that deprives the results of much significance. In Iowa, it's only the unexpected result that registers. As they both go through the motions, it occurs that both these candidates could lose -- Bill Bradley by not getting enough votes, and Al Gore by getting too much exposure.

The country already seems tired of the vice president's wooden way, and he's not even the nominee yet. The morning after his mind-numbing victory speech in Iowa, a jumbled lyric kept floating through my over-politicized mind: ''Have you ever seen a dream walking? Have you ever heard a tree talking?'' Me, I'm just grateful the next president isn't going to be from my state of Arkansas. Been there, done that, would like a respite.

Now both contenders for the Democratic nomination go on to New Hampshire, where the voters don't pay much attention to trends in Iowa, or anywhere else, bless 'em. There's something attractive about granite. At least to Arkies, for we're not known for being notably flexible ourselves. And we'd be a lot better off if we jettisoned our inferiority complex and stopped paying so much attention to what others think of us. Because usually they don't.

After Iowa, more attention will be paid to the election results in New Hampshire, and should be, because it's an election -- not a caucus. Nobody pays much mind to what happens in Iowa except candidates who lose so badly, they finally realize it's time to quit. Like Orrin Hatch. (Yes, he was one of the Republican candidates. He's a senator from Utah and highly likely to stay one.)

Just what Orrin Hatch was doing running for president with a Senate Judiciary Committee to chair is one more mystery of American politics, and of the American ego.

But a presidential election is, after all, an elimination process, and once again the process is working.

A presidential election can also be an educational process, and Al Gore appears capable of learning almost anything except how to be interesting. He doesn't even interest when he's caught in one of his exaggerations, which is polspeak for one of his woppers. Maybe because one can believe that he remembers doing so much more than he ever actually did -- cleaning up Love Canal, inventing the Internet, introducing the Earned Income Tax Credit. ... Politicians are like that. When ego meets reality, it's reality that bends.

But this much the vice president has learned: how to soften his attacks on his Democratic rival and act like a front-runner; how to line up the party regulars behind him; and how to mobilize every one of his party's core constituencies, ethnic identities and special interests. In short, the super-delegates at Democratic conventions who anoint the nominee. (There's been little democratic about a Democratic presidential nomination since the McGovernites introduced quotas.)

The Gore campaign so far has been a textbook example of how to win the presidential nomination and lose the election. Because the more Al Bore appeals to Democratic partisans, the less appealing he becomes to the swing voters the winner will need come November. Al Gore may eliminate Bill Bradley without doing much for himself. Although once he has that presidential nomination in hand, the vice president is perfectly capable of adopting new foliage; he's the deciduous candidate.

It's still a long, long road a-windin' to the nomination. Iowa's premature caucuses always have the feel of a demonstration project, while New Hampshire's early primary still marks the real beginning of the presidential campaign. That state's voters can't make a presidential candidate, but they can break one. Even a tie in New Hampshire goes to the underdog, which means Bill Bradley and, on the Republican side, John McCain need only come close to declare victory and stay in the race.

Iowa's artificial caucuses rated the little attention they got; New Hampshire's real election deserves the attention it's getting.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate