This weekend’s straw poll in Ames, Iowa, kicked off the 2000 presidential race and sorted out the Republican field. Everyone agrees that George W. Bush is the front-runner, that Steve Forbes is in second place, and that Dan Quayle, who finished back in the pack with Lamar Alexander, will soon join Alexander on the sidelines. But Ames failed to resolve the fate of the candidates who came in third and fourth–Elizabeth Dole and Gary Bauer–and the one who skipped Ames, John McCain. For these three, the post-game spin contest is crucial. Here’s a playback of their takes on the straw poll results and a look ahead at their playbook of messages for the remainder of the race.
1. Top three. Dole needed to get within striking distance of Bush and to seal off the rest of the pack behind her. On Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and Late Edition, she boasted that she had cracked “the top three.” Pundits bought the three-winners line, treating Ames as a horse race (“win, place, and show”) and noting that “no one’s ever won the Republican nomination without finishing in the top three” at Ames. Newspapers, cramped for space, confined their headlines to Bush, Forbes, and Dole. Though Dole’s 14 percent was closer to Bauer’s 9 than to Forbes’$2 21, she earned a “solid third” and a place among the leaders by crossing the “double-digit” threshold. As Fox News’ Carl Cameron put it: “The other seven candidates could not crack double digits.”
2. Race for third. Since Bush and Forbes were expected to finish first and second, many pundits concluded, as Lisa Myers put it on Meet the Press, that “the real race here was for third. Elizabeth Dole won that.” The Boston Globe called Dole “the winner of this contest-within-the-contest.” Dole touted her “victory” on every talk show and cited the Myers and Globe quotes in a press release. At a news conference, an aide introduced Dole as the straw poll’s “real winner.”
3. Underdog. In every TV interview, Dole claimed to have been “outspent by millions of dollars.” Her spokesman told reporters that “on a dollar-per-vote basis, Elizabeth Dole trounced George Bush and Steve Forbes.” Reporters love an underdog. “From a strict cost-benefit standpoint, the big winner may be Elizabeth Dole,” concluded Time.
4. Comeback kid. Dismissive coverage of Dole before the straw poll played to her advantage, as everyone marveled at her “surprisingly” strong third. “Dole Revived,” the Washington Post’s front page proclaimed. On This Week, George Will conceded, “There had been a lot of very skeptical stories about whether her people would show up. She, therefore, I think, is the biggest winner.”
1. Race for second. Forbes wants to fast-forward the GOP tournament to a finals bracket: Bush vs. Forbes. To prevent this, Dole needs to create a semifinal playoff–Forbes vs. Dole–to determine who gets to play Bush. Despite Forbes’ huge financial advantage, “we finished close to second,” Dole told reporters Saturday night. “This is going to become a two-person race.” The press agreed. “Forbes had growing hopes … that he might upset Bush or finish a close second,” recalled the Post. Instead, “he finished closer to Dole than to Bush.”
2. Experience. Having narrowed the field to three, Dole needs to focus the contest on criteria that favor her. The first of these is political experience, of which Bush has little and Forbes has almost none. On every talk show, Dole vowed “to demonstrate that the candidate with the most experience is more qualified than the candidates with the most money. … We’re talking about president of the United States.”
3. Gender. This is the more obvious criterion that distinguishes Dole. She hardly needs to mention it–the media bring it up anyway–but she invokes it subtly, alluding (as she did on two Sunday talk shows) to “women who drive their daughters halfway across the state to shake my hand, a woman they dare to believe in.” Newspapers hail Dole’s female followers as evidence “that she can attract new voters to the GOP.”
1. Top four. Like Dole, Bauer needed to crack the top tier and seal off the pack. Since sports analogies tend to cut off the top tier at three rather than four (e.g., “bronze medal,” “win, place, and show”), Bauer changed metaphors, telling reporters that he had reached “the first rung of candidates” and that lower finishers might soon perish. On Meet the Press, he called himself the “breakout candidate.” While some pundits lumped Bauer with the winners, others offered him the next best position–“leading the rest of the pack”–or at least distinguished him from the “losers.”
2. Social conservative quarterfinal. This was Bauer’s big spin win. Like Dole, he won a crucial “contest-within-the-contest.” His scant margin over Pat Buchanan–8.9 percent to 7.3 percent–became a huge factor in the post-poll analysis. Pundits concluded that Bauer “did what he had to do … beat Pat Buchanan,” and therefore “can legitimately say he is the candidate of the Christian right,” establishing himself as “one of the winners,” the “three or four” candidates who “got their tickets punched” to stay in the race. Talk show hosts reminded Buchanan that he had lost to Bauer and asked whether Buchanan was finished.
3. Conservative semifinal. Having scored well ahead of Bauer and Buchanan, Forbes anointed himself “the conservative in a two-man race” against Bush. Bauer disagreed, and the media took his side. “Forbes, Bauer Battle for Right,” the Post proclaimed, concluding that because Forbes failed to break away, “he and Bauer are likely to continue a long and tough fight for the leadership of the conservative wing.”
4. Underdog. Bauer couldn’t claim to be more strapped than Dole, so he claimed underdog status on the basis of low name recognition, inexperience, and working-class heritage. “I am running against some big bios … the son of a former president, the son of a tycoon, and the wife of a senator,” Bauer argued on Late Edition. “I have never run for president or office before. And yet here we come in fourth place.” Newsweek’s David Brooks wrote that Bauer “overcame his own financial disadvantages” and joined Dole as the two surviving “Have-Not candidates.”
1. Buchanan will defect. Since Buchanan’s combativeness and loyal base make him hard to write off as a candidate, his rivals have persuaded the media at least to write him off as a Republican by inferring that his low score at Ames will prompt him to transfer to the Reform Party. The more Buchanan fends off comparisons to Bauer by emphasizing his protectionism, the more he plays into this scenario.
2. Populism. With Buchanan out of the way, Bauer will go after Forbes. When asked on television about Forbes’ claim to represent the right. Bauer cited Forbes’ wealth and called himself “the son of a maintenance man.” On This Week, George Stephanopoulos agreed that Bauer “is becoming the populist in the race,” noting that Bauer’s supporters “love the fact that he was the son of a janitor.”
3. Conservatism. If Bauer wins the social conservative quarterfinal and the conservative semifinal, he gets to run as the “Reagan” candidate against “Bush-Gore” moderation on abortion, Hollywood, China, and other hot-button issues. This bracket-by-bracket tournament strategy reduces Bauer’s obstacles from three candidates to two. He can target Forbes, knowing that if he prevails, either Bush or Dole will have vanquished the other in the moderate semifinal. Indeed, Dole’s success at Ames arguably helps Bauer by giving Bush a semifinal contest.
1. Ames meant nothing to him. Despite having skipped the straw poll, McCain was invited onto Face the Nation and Fox News Sunday to discuss it. “If you’re going to be taken seriously,” Brit Hume asked him, “don’t you have to face up to the fact, when all the other candidates decide that an event is worth attending … that maybe you’ve got to play too?” In reply, McCain repeatedly called Ames “meaningless.” His chutzpah bowled over the pundits. Stephanopoulos called McCain’s no-show “a pretty smart move” and portrayed the 83 votes he won in the straw poll–putting him in last place among active Republican candidates–as evidence of his strength.
2. Ames meant death for others. Noting that McCain had bypassed the event, Quayle explained on Face the Nation that he, too, “almost took a pass on this. It wasn’t until George Bush said he was going to participate that then I said, ‘OK, we’ve got to do it,’ out of respect to the Iowa Republican Party.” The result, Quayle pleaded, was that he lost to candidates who had been in Iowa “years and months.” McCain, explaining his decision to stay out, espoused a less sentimental philosophy: “You always want to fight on ground that is most favorable to you.” For this, the media executed Quayle and spared McCain. “Quayle and Lamar Alexander might be gone, but I think McCain is still in,” concluded NPR’s Mara Liasson. Ames was Vietnam in reverse: McCain ducked the fight, and Quayle took the beating.
3. Viability. “Once the dust has settled from the straw poll,” McCain regally announced, “I will review the new political landscape” and begin “engaging the other Republican candidates.” Why does McCain get a bye? Because he has convinced the media that he has enough money and support in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and other states to skip Iowa and catch fire later. Newsweek, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and several TV pundits agreed that McCain remains formidable, wasn’t hurt by Ames, and may well end up as the principal alternative to Bush.
4. Vote-buying. To undermine the straw poll’s authority as an arbiter of his candidacy, McCain called it a “fund-raiser,” “a sham and a joke” in which campaigns spent “millions” to “buy” votes. “My campaign theme is to try to reform the system that is now awash with money and the influence of special interests,” he argued on Fox News Sunday. Brit Hume’s retort–“that this whole process isn’t quite pure enough for you”–played right into McCain’s hands. McCain doesn’t need to persuade the media that his reasons for skipping Ames were morally sound. He just needs to persuade them that his reasons were moral rather than political.
1. Real votes. The vote-buying complaint only gets McCain a bye on the straw poll. To get another bye on February’s Iowa caucuses, he’ll rely on two other moral arguments. First, he’ll claim that caucuses aren’t “real votes.” “We’ll have real votes in New Hampshire,” McCain argued on Fox News Sunday. “That’s where real people are motivated to vote.” On Face the Nation, he suggested that he would focus on “the genuine balloting process, which takes place in New Hampshire and then South Carolina.”
2. Ethanol. Many pundits, fancying themselves shrewd, suggest that McCain’s true reason for skipping Iowa is that he has “taken a position on ethanol subsidies that’s unpalatable to voters in Iowa.” On This Week, Stephanopoulos suggested that McCain might “have to do something dramatic,” such as “make a stand and say, ‘We’re not going to compete in Iowa. We think these ethanol subsidies are an abomination.’ ” This is McCain’s greatest triumph: He has conned the media into disbelieving his political calculations and accusing him instead of principle. “I’ve taken a lot of unpopular positions,” he conceded on Fox News Sunday.
3. Experience. The longer McCain stays out of the race without damaging his credibility, the more the field narrows to his advantage. Alexander and Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, are already gone. Quayle and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, won’t be far behind. If the field dwindles to Bush, Forbes, and Bauer, McCain can sell himself as the only experienced officeholder running against Bush. But Dole’s third-place finish at Ames, coupled with her victory in the post-Ames spin contest, complicates this plan.
So here’s how the race shapes up. Bauer will frame it as a populist showdown, chiefly between himself and Forbes. Forbes will frame it as a fight between the establishment, led by Bush, and conservatives, led by himself. Dole will exploit feminism as well as feminine stereotypes, pitching herself as the candidate of change, civility, and moral renewal. And McCain will fortify his war chest while his rivals battle and bleed. Ames has organized the contestants. Let the games begin.