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Jewish World Review August 23, 1999 /11 Elul, 5759

Chris Matthews

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GOP candidates are weak also-rans

Chris Matthews is on vacation. This column is by Donald Lambro. --
GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH'S decisive win in the Iowa straw poll reconfirmed that he will almost certainly be the Republican Party's presidential nominee. But the real story in last week's cattle show in Ames was how weak his rivals for the nomination have turned out to be.

Bush crossed the finish line with his front-runner status not only clearly intact, but also measurably enhanced -- racking up the biggest vote total ever in the quadrennial popularity contest. He proved that despite his late entry into the race, he is both the top choice of the GOP establishment and of the nearly 7,500 grassroots voters in the heart of the Midwest who turned out to support him -- tripling the previous record.

Most impressive of all, the Texas governor showed that he could take on a large field of opponents who threatened to divide up the vote. He defeated candidates who spent more time in Iowa than he did, and more money, too. In the end, he won the only contest that matters in the 1999 preliminaries, garnering 31 percent of the ballots cast.

The "Grim Reaper" that Pat Buchanan foresaw cutting across Iowa's corn fields after Saturday's results will no doubt take his toll in the days and weeks to come -- cutting the weak and wounded from the pack.

Steve Forbes, who finished 10 points behind Bush, showed what a lot of money can buy in the political arena. He spent nearly $2 million to Bush's $750,000, but his second-place showing masked a much larger weakness in his insurgent candidacy.

While he has emerged as Bush's chief conservative rival, the millions he has spent on television and radio ads has bought him little support. He is near the bottom of the New Hampshire poll and other state polls, and remains stuck in the low single digits in the national surveys.

Nevertheless, Forbes strengthened his base of support in Iowa among the GOP's social-conservative activists, and that was enough to push him into second place -- demonstrating anew how important this large voting bloc has become in American politics. Take notice, George Bush.

But behind Bush and Forbes lies a field of weak also-rans. Dan Quayle, his fund raising drying up faster than drought-stricken Eastern farmland, finished in eighth place, behind Alan Keyes, the former ambassador who is running largely to keep his lecture fees up. Sooner or later, Quayle will have to accept what almost everyone else has known for some time, that he has been unable to erase the comic image people have of him as an amiable but bumbling former vice president.

Former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, making his second bid for the presidency, drew an equally embarrassing sixth place, after four years of nonstop campaigning in the state. He, too, has been running on fumes, and his dismal showing ended his candidacy.

Similarly, Buchanan's fifth-place result proved that his narrow protectionist agenda draws little popular support in an era in which global economics rules Wall Street and Main Street. Most people in Middle America either work for major corporations or midsized-to-small businesses which depend on trade for their livelihood or are eager to tap into emerging world markets. Buchanan knows this. His fat stock portfolio is a Who's Who of multinational traders.

Nor is there much support in the free-market-oriented GOP for imposing big-government tariff taxes on American consumers. This is why Buchanan is thinking of abandoning his party and peddling his AFL-CIO agenda as the nominee of the Reform Party. If he does, he may draw some votes from the GOP, but it is likely that he will take an equal number of votes away from the Democrats.

Meantime, what of Elizabeth Dole and religious conservative Gary Bauer, who finished in third and fourth place respectively? Neither one of them is showing any strength in national or state polls; and neither one can by any conceivable stretch of the imagination threaten Bush at this juncture.

Dole's 14 percent showing in the straw poll may give her the right to say she is among the top three candidates, and she can regroup in the Iowa caucuses. But the fact is that her polls have been imploding, from the mid-30s in February to the low teens or single digits.

Moreover, Dole has serious money problems, which will make it difficult if not impossible to keep a viable campaign alive until next year's primaries. Say what you will about her, she is a shrewd, pragmatic woman who isn't going to spend months tilting at windmills. She will leave the race before the year is out.

Bauer, a Pat Buchanan clone who has made abortion his primary campaign issue, isn't going to be the nominee of his party. He is largely unknown nationally and, while good at bring out his troops in small, closed contests like the Ames event, he barely registers single digits in the polls. Yet he is well-financed by the religious right and, like Buchanan, doesn't need a lot of money to run his kind of guerrilla campaign.

Bauer will be around in the primaries to come, prodding and pestering Bush and demanding to be a part of the debate. And he will likely get his wish, because by that time there will not be very many GOP rivals left for Bush to debate.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews, chief of the San Francisco Examiner's Washington Bureau, is host of "Hardball" on CNBC. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


08/16/99: Bubba on Bubba
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08/09/99: With warm regards, Richard Nixon
08/04/99: Weicker: real third party is on the Left
08/02/99: Dubyah's last hangover
07/27/99: Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh; capitalism is gonna win

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