Publishing magnate Steve Forbes won tiny Delaware’s first-ever presidential primary Saturday, a result further roiling the tumultuous Republican presidential race.
With 96 percent of Delaware’s GOP precincts reporting, Forbes had 10,989 votes, or 31 percent; and Sen. Bob Dole had 8,755 for 27 percent. Pat Buchanan had 5,975, 18 percent; Lamar Alexander 4,286 at 13 percent. Alan Keyes, who also had campaigned here, finished at 5 percent.
A Forbes win not only gives him all 12 of Delaware’s convention delegates, it provides a much-needed boost to his self-financed candidacy. He had rocketed into contention on the strength of massive advertising and his laserlike focus on his flat tax proposal, only to stall during the past month.
In the view of some analysts, without a Delaware victory he could not have remained a force in the campaign.
Dole, once the clear GOP front-runner who last week was rocked by losing the New Hampshire primary to Buchanan, was left Saturday night trying to put a positive spin on running second in Delaware.
Upon learning of the early Delaware results while campaigning in Arizona, the Senate majority leader said: “We never had a chance to campaign there. I think if we place second there, we did pretty well there.”
Buchanan, who also was campaigning in Arizona Saturday, said he would be pleased to finish third, relatively close to Dole. “It would be astounding since we have’t visited Delaware,” he said,
Forbes was the only major candidate still active in the GOP race who came to Delaware personally to bid for votes. The other leading candidates stayed away out of deference to New Hampshire Republican leaders who vigorously objected that the Delaware primary was less than a week after the Granite State’s own first-in-the-nation contest.
Partial results of exit poll interviews of voters showed Forbes and Dole splitting the support of those who described themselves as moderates or somewhat conservative, while Buchanan got most of the voters who called themselves very conservative. He also ran strongly among the roughly 255 voters who described themselves as members of the religious right.
About half the voters told interviewers for the Voter News Service that they approved of the flat tax, the centerpiece of Forbes’ campaign, and more of these voters supported Forbes than any of the other candidates.
Of primary voters who backed independent presidential candidate Ross Perot in 1992 when he got about 20 percent of the Delaware vote, the biggest single bloc went to Forbes, with Buchanan not far behind.
Despite not actively campaigning in Delaware, Dole was striving to avoid another embarrassing defeat in the wake of his New Hampshire loss. Buchanan aimed to enhance the momentum gained from that triumph, as well as his strong second showing the week before in Iowa, and thus improve his prospects in the primaries in Arizona on Tuesday and South Carolina Saturday.
Dole spent Saturday in Arizona hoping to alleviate local resentment at him for spurning a primary debate in the state earlier last week.
Buchanan derided Dole as “Beltway Bob” and said his rival “knows every restaurant on K Street (in downtown Washington) but he hasn’t been in your state since October.”
He also made a caustic crack about the 72-year-old Dole’s age, suggesting the Kansas senator avoided the debate because it “was past his bedtime.”
Dole woke up Saturday morning to a blistering editorial in the Arizona Republic, the state’s largest newspaper, calling the Senate leader’s campaign “faltering” in Arizona. “Dole’s falling like a rock,” the editorial said.
While Dole holds a slight numerical advantage in most statewide polls, his lead over Buchanan and Alexander in one recent survey was within the margin of error. At stake are 39 delegates in a winner-take-all contest that represents the largest bloc in the campaign’s early rounds.
Forbes had targeted Delaware from the beginning, hoping to take advantage of the absence of the other candidates. Initially, he aimed at a second-place finish. But Forbes’ weak fourth-place finish in Iowa and New Hampshire made victory here for him almost imperative. After being severely criticized for his barrage of ads attacking other candidates, Forbes’ final efforts in Delaware relied on commercials that boosted his programs for tax reform and health care.
On election eve, Forbes was the only candidate to address a dinner of about 500 GOP leaders and activists in Georgetown, in southern Delaware.
“He was a big hit,” said one local official who attended. “In fact, I decided to vote for him myself.”