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Weak win, strong second // IOWA

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Bob Dole held on for only a weak first place in Iowa's crucial Republican Party caucuses Monday night, while a surprisingly strong Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander surged ahead of the rest of the party's candidates for president.

Well behind were Steve Forbes, the millionaire publisher who had ranked second in Iowa in some polls, and Phil Gramm, whose much-vaunted campaign organization netted him only fifth place.

With 98 percent of Iowa's 2,142 precincts reporting, the nine-man race broke down this way:

Dole, 26 percent; Buchanan, 23 percent; Alexander, 18 percent; Forbes, 10 percent; Gramm, 9 percent; Alan Keyes, 7 percent; Richard Lugar, 4 percent; Morry Taylor, 1 percent; Bob Dornan, 0 percent.

"We withstood a barrage of millions and millions and millions of dollars of negative advertising and came out on top," Dole said. "Tonight was the first big step on our road to return conservative common sense to the White House."

President Clinton was unopposed in the state's Democratic caucuses.

Dole, the Senate majority leader from nearby Kansas, had been expected to win Iowa all along. But finishing only 3 percentage points ahead of Buchanan was hardly an overwhelming show of strength for the man most experts predicted will be the party's nominee.

Buchanan, who in the past two weeks also won a straw poll in Alaska and caucuses in Louisiana, pronounced himself "hard on the heels of Bob Dole in a state he called his own." When he came to Iowa 11 months ago, Buchanan said, "We were political strangers in the land, and you took us in."

Buchanan campaigned hard in Iowa on his twin themes of social conservatism and working-class, anti-NAFTA populism, but it was probably the former that helped him most. Buchanan benefitted from the support of religious conservatives, especially some who switched after Gramm lost to Buchanan in Louisiana last week.

Alexander, who largely stayed away from negative commercials while spending 80 days in Iowa, more than any other candidate, told his supporters:

"Iowa has sent a message tonight around the country to every single Republican in America, to remember your A-B-Cs."

His supporters joyously chanted back the rest of the slogan: "Alexander! Beats! Clinton!"

Forbes put the best face on things, telling CNN that his distant fourth was "a very credible showing" for a candidate who entered the race in September.

All three candidates who finished ahead of Forbes had a stronger, more traditional grass-roots organization, suggesting that the Forbes strategy of blanketing the air waves bought him more casual support in the polls than at the caucuses.

Iowa's caucuses are precinct-level local meetings, in which voters sit down with their neighbors to discuss party business, the party platform and to state their preference for president.

The weather was cold but clear as 151 voters of Polk County's Precinct 65 filed into the cafeteria at Tech High School near downtown Des Moines just before 7 p.m. Unlike Florida's sterile polling places, where no campaign material is allowed, the cafeteria was festooned with posters and stickers and brochures. Supporters of the various candidates buttonholed their undecided neighbors for last-minute campaigning.

Lorraine May, the caucus chairman, started the caucus as C-SPAN's camera watched. The precinct's most famous resident, Gov. Terry Branstad, made a pitch on behalf of his candidate, Dole.

May then had the various campaigns' supporters huddle to choose a representative. Most were ordinary voters, not campaign staffers. They shuffled nervously as they spoke for their favorite, while schoolchildren passed out blank squares of paper with small American flags on top _ the ballots. The Iowans gave equally warm applause to each speaker.

The voters wrote down their choice by hand. The children gathered the folded paper ballots on glass plates and brought them to the front of the room. A representative from each campaign watched carefully as two workers called out the handwritten name on each ballot and a third tallied the results on pieces of paper taped to the wall.

The results from Precinct 65: Dole 50, Alexander 37, Forbes 28, Lugar 14, Gramm 8, Taylor 6, Buchanan 5, Keyes 4, Dornan 0.

Around the state roughly 100,000 Iowa Republicans attended the caucuses, down from the 110,000 who attended in 1988 _ and much lower than the 130,000 that had been predicted. Party officials and observers blamed the falloff on voter dissatisfaction with the negative tone of the campaign.

The focus of the presidential race now snaps to New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first primary one week from today. The campaigns and the media will rush for the airport this morning; in political terms Des Moines will be a ghost town by nightfall.

Monday's vote ended the longest and most expensive presidential campaign in the modern history of the Iowa caucuses. State party officials estimated the candidates spent $15-million to $20-million, with Forbes alone shattering records by spending more than $4-million on advertising.

Character, negative campaigning and organization decided the race as much as issues. The nine candidates generally agreed on economic issues such as a balanced budget but competed for the support of the social conservatives.

Iowa caucus results

Dole 25,378 26%

Buchanan 22,512 23%

Alexander 17,003 18%

Forbes 9,816 10%

Gramm 9,001 9%

Keyes 7,179 7%

Lugar 3,576 4%

Taylor 1,380 1%

Percentage of precincts reporting: 98%

Source: Wire reports