ORLANDO, Fla. -- Avoiding a potential pitfall on the road to the Republican presidential nomination, Sen. Bob Dole finished first in a nonbinding straw vote yesterday in Florida.
In the first GOP test of strength since Colin L. Powell decided not to enter the presidential race, Mr. Dole came away with one-third of the ballots cast. Texas Sen. Phil Gramm was second, and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander was third.
Dole campaign aides were quick to claim the result as further evidence that their man "is still the overwhelming front-runner," as deputy campaign manager Bill Lacy declared.
But privately, Dole campaign strategists had been predicting a much better showing, and the comments of the Kansas senator's campaign officials after the votes were tallied betrayed their disappointment.
"Everybody had something to be disappointed about," remarked Ben Ginsberg, a former general counsel of the Republican National Committee, who was on hand as a neutral observer.
Both Mr. Gramm and Mr. Alexander had invested heavily in time and effort in hopes of a straw-vote breakthrough that could bring them badly needed national attention and campaign contributions as the primary season draws near. Neither got what they had wanted.
Mr. Gramm proclaimed victory anyway. "It's a two-man race, and we proved it," he said afterward. "Either Bob Dole is going to be the nominee or I'm going to be the nominee. [The others] are basically out of this race."
Mr. Alexander strongly disputed that, claiming that he, too, had achieved his objective. Mr. Dole, he added, "is everybody's front-runner, and he only got a third of the vote. It's now a three-man race."
More than 3,000 Republican activists from around the state cast secret presidential ballots yesterday after listening to speeches from the GOP hopefuls.
The official tally announced last evening was Mr. Dole, 33 percent; Mr. Gramm, 26 percent; Mr. Alexander, 23 percent; conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, 9 percent; former Baltimore talk-show host Alan Keyes, 8 percent; and magazine publisher Malcolm S. Forbes Jr., Rep. Robert Dornan and Sen. Richard Lugar, all less than 1 percent.
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter was a last-minute no-show, prompting fresh speculation that he will soon quit the race.
The big GOP event, a classic example of the triumph of political perception over reality, was staged on Orlando's convention center strip, a carefully manicured mix of palm trees and gaudy neon lights, high-rise hotels and chain restaurants.
For months, the leading Republican candidates had treated the Florida vote as the virtual equivalent of a primary or caucus. "It's become the Iowa of the South," said Richard Pinsky, a Dole organizer here, comparing it to the traditional start of the delegate selection season.
In fact, yesterday's ballot had nothing to do with the awarding of actual convention delegates, a process that is still about 10 weeks away. Nor were those casting the votes here necessarily a scientific cross-section of the 3.1 million registered Republicans in the nation's fourth-most-populous state.
Still, the results had been widely expected to define the outlines of the GOP campaign in the period leading up to the primaries and caucuses in February, if for no other reason than that this was the last major event on the political calendar until then.
Mr. Dole is estimated to have spent well in excess of $1 million wooing the Florida activists, most of whom were chosen by lottery from a pool of 11,000 applicants. The Senate majority leader was widely criticized by his rivals for having lavished everything from Godiva chocolates to free hotel rooms on Sunshine State Republicans, in exchange for their votes.
But Dole aides felt they had no choice but to go all-out here. When Mr. Gramm tied Mr. Dole in an Iowa straw poll in the summer, it sent the Kansas senator's campaign into a tailspin, prompting waves of unflattering publicity and widespread criticism of his weaknesses as a candidate.
Last night, they insisted that they had achieved their objective.
"A win is a win, and today was a win," said Dole campaign manager Scott Reed.
When Mr. Dole predicted, in the aftermath of the Iowa setback, that he would win the Florida ballot, he seemed to be setting himself up for a potentially more serious stumble. He called Florida "the nation's true straw ballot" and predicted that someone "is going to have what we call momentum" after winning it.
Though criticized by some as a waste of time and money, the Florida straw poll has a history of predicting the future course of GOP nomination races.
At the first such event in 1979, a poor showing by former Treasury Secretary John B. Connally was deemed an early sign that his presidential candidacy was in serious trouble. That year's event was won by Ronald Reagan, the eventual nominee, while the surprise third-place finisher, George Bush, soon emerged in Iowa as Mr. Reagan's main rival.
The next time the Republican nomination was up for grabs, in 1987, Mr. Bush won the Florida straw balloting and, ultimately, the nomination. An unexpectedly strong showing here by runner-up Pat Robertson presaged his second-place finish a few months later in Iowa and heralded the arrival of religious conservatives as a force within the Republican Party.
Advocates of the Florida poll argue that it merits the attention it gets from the politicians. But in the inner realms of politics,
where perception becomes reality, events such as straw polls can easily gain exaggerated importance, especially when they are magnified by intensive media coverage, as was the case this year.
"I don't think the story of this vote here has legs. It is not going to last more than a couple days," said Bay Buchanan, the manager of her brother's campaign.