For Sen. Bob Dole, the best news in Monday night’s Iowa caucus was not his own disappointing showing, but an order of finish that kept the rivals he feared most from gaining a clear burst of momentum.
Dole’s own total of 26 percent fell ominously below his 37 percent victory margin in 1988 - and signaled that many Republican partisans retain serious doubts about him as the party’s standard-bearer against President Clinton this fall.
But the results stacked the remaining candidates in an order that may improve Dole’s prospects of holding on in the critical New Hampshire primary next Tuesday. Rather than significantly resolving the Republican race, the Iowa vote instead set the stage for a volatile New Hampshire battle in which nearly everything is up for grabs.
With Patrick J. Buchanan seizing a strong second place, the evening’s clearest bragging rights went to a polarizing contender whom the Dole staff continues to believe is hobbled by extremely high negative ratings, even among fellow Republicans. As in last week’s Louisiana caucus, Buchanan demonstrated here a powerful appeal to social conservatives that should make him a force in the race for weeks to come. But he still faces an uphill fight to convince less-ideological voters that he is more than a protest candidate.
The results are bound to provide a significant boost for former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who surged to third place and appeared virtually giddy with joy as he appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live” Monday night.
“With Alexander finishing ahead of Steve Forbes in Iowa, I believe New Hampshire will have a one-week flirtation with Alexander,” said Gerry Chervinsky, whose KRC Research polls extensively in the state.
But Alexander still has a lot of ground he must make up in New Hampshire: a Chervinsky poll for the Boston Globe poll released Monday morning showed Alexander with support from just 5 percent of voters there. And unless Alexander can break into the top two in New Hampshire, he may lack the funds to meaningfully compete in the cascade of southern primaries in early March.
Most importantly for the senator from Kansas, Steve Forbes, whose multimillion dollar advertising blitz has moved him near Dole in the top of the New Hampshire polls, suffered a grievous disappointment, fading to a fourth place finish. Under a withering attack from his opponents, Forbes has already been losing ground in New Hampshire, and these results could place his campaign under tremendous pressure in the next few days.
“This puts a big hit on Forbes,” said Scott Reed, Dole’s campaign manager.
The results were even more damaging to Texas Sen. Phil Gramm - who one year ago seemed virtually certain to emerge as Dole’s chief rival.
Traditionally, Iowa has done more to identify the losers than anoint the winners, and this year’s exercise continued the trend.