A Shrinking Field Iowans Speak And Alexander Drops Out.

Posted: August 17, 1999

The presidential field for 2000 just lost a well-qualified contender, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. The former governor, university president and U.S. Secretary of Education dropped out yesterday after trailing five fellow Republicans at a quadrennial party fund-raiser known as the Iowa straw poll.

Mr. Alexander never found a distinctive niche. He had worked to improve education, but so had the newcomer with the $36 million war chest: Texas Gov. George W. Bush. The Tennessean backed a Reaganesque, two-tax-rate code - 15 percent and 28 percent - but that must have seemed dull compared to the simplistic, flat tax of Steve Forbes. And Mr. Alexander's service in President George Bush's cabinet didn't quite stack up against Elizabeth Dole's leadership of two cabinet-level departments: Transportation and Labor.

Mr. Alexander campaigned hard to get Iowans to come to Ames for him last Saturday. But not only did he finish behind (1) Mr. Bush, (2) Mr. Forbes, and (3) Ms. Dole, he also trailed a former undersecretary of Education (Gary Bauer) and commentator Pat Buchanan. Ouch.

This event, where it costs $25 to vote but most of the tickets are bought by campaigns, is nothing more than an early test of money, logistics and message. Still, the results fuel concern that the 2000 debate will be distorted by the financial advantage of the front-runner, Mr. Bush, and of the free-spending Mr. Forbes over their rivals.

Messrs. Bush and Forbes have rejected the primary-season spending limits that would qualify them for federal matching money. With their virtually unlimited budgets, they can make it hard for voters in medium-size Iowa and pint-size New Hampshire to hear the ideas and weigh the credentials of the other candidates. The chances for a robust, extended debate are also cramped by the rush of many large states into the front end of the primary calendar.

With Mr. Alexander knocked out and with former Vice President Dan Quayle nursing his eighth-place finish in the straw poll, Republicans seem to be looking for a fresh face. Four of Iowa's top five finishers have never held elective office. The only one who's ever won an election is two-term Gov. Bush, whose national and international agenda still has a lot of blanks on it.

Yet Mr. Bush's resume looks pretty good compared with those of his chief rivals (with the possible exception of Arizona Sen. John McCain, who skipped the straw poll). Even in the decade of Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura, it seems unlikely that Americans are about to elect a president who has never served in elective office. Colin Powell might break that rule, but he's not running.

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