Caucuses Cap Blitz In Iowa Presidential Candidates Waged A Nasty, Costly Campaign. Iowans Will Respond To Them Tonight.

Posted: February 12, 1996

DES MOINES — They've been barraged by millions of dollars of vicious ads, witnessed countless personal attacks. Now, Iowans get to respond to the presidential candidates who have been wooing them and bashing one another as voters head to churches, schools and meeting halls to participate in caucuses tonight.

While even his rivals concede that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole is the odds-on favorite to win the Republican skirmish, several candidates have been jockeying for the second-place slot in a seemingly tight Republican race that marks the first crucial political test of the election year.

President Clinton also made stops across the state over the weekend, seeking to drum up a high turnout for Democratic caucuses, but because he is unchallenged for his party's nomination, his appearance was overwhelmed by the electricity in the Republican race.

The caucuses culminate an intense month, the likes of which voters here have never seen. Iowans are used to being courted by candidates who advertise a little and talk to them a lot - in diners, on farms, at county fairs. This time, in addition to the up-close, personal campaigning, they were deluged by television spots filled with images of political heroes and villains.

``I would characterize this caucus campaign by saying it's bigger and better than ever,'' Brian Kennedy, Iowa State GOP chairman, said yesterday. ``The candidates have spent just under 500 days campaigning in Iowa; we've had more candidates than ever before. We certainly have had more advertising than ever before, by a factor of 10.

Campaigning was particularly vigorous and sometimes vicious over the weekend as polls showed that as many as one-fifth of likely voters still hadn't made up their minds. As if to provide testament to the power of propaganda, a number of Iowans said they had decided whom to back, only to become undecided after watching all the commercials.

`CONFUSED'

``I was always for Dole, but . . . that's all I'm going to say is `but,' '' said Marie Anderson, 70, who helps run a family farm in West Branch, Iowa. ``I had decided, but now I'm confused.''

In a last-ditch effort to nab voters such as Anderson, candidates crisscrossed the state Saturday and yesterday, rallying supporters in farm sheds and banquet halls, in church sanctuaries and hotel meeting rooms. Several of them concentrated on the large percentage of Iowa voters who count themselves among the Christian right.

``What we're saying is, `Please step on it, brothers and sisters, we need help now because Iowa's crucial,' '' one of the most conservative candidates, Patrick J. Buchanan, said yesterday. ``. . . And if you get there in time, we win it all, but you gotta come now.''

Buchanan, a former commentator and an aide to three Republican presidents, spent his afternoon yesterday calling groups of voters; Dole, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander rallied supporters; while millionaire publisher Steve Forbes bought half-hour time slots on 21 television stations.

It was Forbes, the political novice campaigning against official Washington, who shook up what had been viewed as a relatively staid race by pouring tens of millions of dollars from his own fortune into television commercials that attacked his GOP opponents. He took on Alexander and Gramm, but saved the sharpest digs for Dole, accusing him of deceiving voters and being a tool of the status quo.

The ads provided many voters with their first glimpse of Forbes, the New Jerseyan whose platform centers on a flat tax that he offers as a salve for many of America's woes.

If polls were any indication, Iowans liked what they saw. They still favored Dole - though many of the senator's early supporters wavered - but Forbes was running a strong second.

Dole lashed back to try to stop voters from straying, and his own attack ads - conducted by surrogates such as Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley - as well as those put out by other candidates, appear to have slowed the flow of Iowans to Forbes. By the weekend, separate polls were showing Alexander and Buchanan coming within striking distance of Forbes, or possibly defeating him.

REGAIN FOOTING

For most of last week, Gramm struggled to regain footing after losing to Buchanan in a Louisiana caucus in which only the two of them and fellow conservative Alan Keyes participated. Gramm said repeatedly that he could not win the nomination if he came in lower than third in Iowa, though he later insisted he would go on to compete in New Hampshire no matter what happened here.

Though Iowa caucus voters rarely support the ultimate victor in a presidential race - it's been 12 years since they picked a winner (Ronald Reagan) and 20 since they backed someone who went on to become a first-term president (Jimmy Carter) - they do serve to narrow down a congested field. The Iowa caucuses are followed closely by New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary Feb. 20 and by a number of statewide contests clumped together across the nation in late February and March.

``I think the Iowa caucuses have the potential to completely rearrange the landscape,'' Republican consultant Roger Stone said yesterday. ``You've already seen this. Pat Buchanan, who was running fourth before Louisiana, now is third or second. Steve Forbes, who two weeks ago was a strong second, is now a mediocre third - meaning the attacks are working. And Phil Gramm, who had a lot of money and a strong organization, has dropped through the floor.''

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