Texas Gov. George W. Bush cemented his front-runner status in the Republican presidential race by winning the Iowa straw poll Saturday night, but only after fending off a challenge from magazine publisher Steve Forbes, who finished second.
In the largest turnout ever at this quadrennial event, Bush won 31 percent to Forbes's 21 percent. Elizabeth Dole finished third with 14 percent and Gary Bauer was fourth with 9 percent. The order of finish in the rest of the field was Pat Buchanan, fifth; Lamar Alexander, sixth; Alan Keyes, seventh; Dan Quayle, eighth; and Orrin Hatch, ninth.
Bush's victory demonstrated his ability to convert some of his poll support into actual votes against a big field of opponents. But the fact that seven out of 10 Iowa Republicans chose another candidate made it less than a ringing endorsement.
Forbes tried to use the straw vote to move the nomination battle toward a one-on-one contest with Bush. But Dole, Bauer and Buchanan showed enough strength to encourage them to stay in the race.
The disappointing finishes for Quayle and Alexander left their ability to remain as active candidates in question.
Bush spent less time campaigning in Iowa than any of the others who competed here. But he relied, as in Texas, on a well-financed organization to identify and turn out his supporters.
Bush was not the most electric speaker of the day, delivering a version of his standard stump speech and emphasizing his leadership abilities. "I've learned that you cannot lead by dividing people or pitting them against one another," he said. "I'm a uniter, not a divider."
The only active Republican candidate who did not compete in the straw poll was Arizona Sen. John McCain. Two Republicans who already have dropped out, New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith and Ohio Rep. John Kasich, were included on the ballot. In a potentially ominous warning, Buchanan hinted that if he finds no support within the Republican Party for his message of economic nationalism and social conservatism, he might consider running as a third-party candidate, a move that could badly damage the GOP nominee.
The results were announced after the nine competing candidates delivered a sharp attack on the policies and morals of President Clinton and on the man many believe will be the Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore.
Speaking of the scandals that have plagued the administration, Hatch said of Clinton, Gore and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton: "I think they're about to find out that America can live without them, that it's time for the three of them to just go home. And maybe they will, if any of them can figure out just where home is."
But many of the GOP candidates also aimed their fire at Bush, warning the audience of Iowa activists not to let party leaders and the media pick their nominee before the voters could speak.
"The Washington establishment wants to control this election," Quayle said. "They say money will control our nominee, that issues don't matter. Let's send them a message."
Keyes implied that if Bush or Forbes were to win the nomination, Republicans can prove again that "money is God and God is money."
Saturday's nonbinding straw poll has no formal role in the GOP nomination process, but the candidates invested time and money as if the contest were a surrogate for the precinct caucuses that will be held early next year _ the formal kickoff event of the 2000 campaign.
The contest, which was open to any Iowan who will be 18 by November 2000, drew an overflow crowd roughly double the size of 1995. At one point, the doors to the Hilton Coliseum were closed by fire marshals because the building was filled to capacity. Those still waiting to vote were encouraged to go to adjacent buildings, where the Iowa Republican Party had set up additional polling places.
Forbes spent close to $2-million on the event, and Bush's campaign said he would spend about $750,000. The GOP candidates mingled with their supporters at circus tents, offering free food and entertainment, and all the candidates paid for the $25 tickets required of anyone who wanted to vote.
Forbes' army arrived at the coliseum grounds early, a show of force that caught the other campaigns off guard. Lines of Forbes voters in bright orange shirts snaked for the equivalent of more than a city block waiting to be fed, and the Forbes organizers encouraged them to vote early to avoid waiting.
Bush, in contrast, brought his supporters to the site in the afternoon, and many of his 100-plus buses got caught in the huge traffic jam on the roads around Ames.
Forbes' campaign officials said they had bought about 7,711 tickets and distributed about 7,500 to supporters. Bush's campaign, the Forbes team said, bought more than 10,000 tickets. Bush not only served his supporters lunch but also provided dinner for those who stayed late into the evening.
Iowa Republican Party leaders estimated early in the week that they would gross about $500,000 from the event, but the long lines and heavy voting suggested they would do far better than that.