AMES, Iowa -- When Bob Dole made a campaign stop in Indianola, Iowa, over the weekend, several aides stood at the back of the room, whooping it up and clapping loudly, in an effort to stir up excitement from the crowd.
Again yesterday, reaction was tepid and the turnout remarkably poor when the senator spoke here on the campus of Iowa State University, which has 24,000 students. Only about 75 people, including fewer than a dozen students, showed up. No one interrupted to applaud during Mr. Dole's speech.
What the lack of enthusiasm says -- if anything -- about how well Mr. Dole will do in next Monday's Iowa caucuses is open to debate. Dole campaign aides point out that crowds were better in some other stops on the senator's three-day campaign swing. And, despite slippage in his support in Iowa, Mr. Dole is still favored to finish first in this state, which he won eight years ago and which knows him well.
Moreover, person-to-person politicking has been less important this time in Iowa, despite this state's reputation as a place where "retail" politics is crucial. Instead, thanks in part to the TV and radio ad blitz of Steve Forbes, most of the action in the presidential contest is on the airwaves.
That's one reason why the Dole campaign decided to manufacture a bit of the fire that's missing out on the stump. Sunday night, Mr. Dole addressed an unpublicized rally on the Ames campus; reporters were told only that he had a private dinner that evening.
Hundreds of his most ardent supporters in Iowa were invited to the event, which was filmed by the campaign's cameras. The purpose, aides said, was to provide footage of a crowd cheering Mr. Dole's words for a spot that could convey an aura of excitement at the close of the Iowa race.
Stephen W. Roberts, state co-chairman of the Dole campaign and the emcee of the Sunday night event, tried to downplay the lack of fire surrounding the candidacy. He maintained that Iowans aren't very enthusiastic about any of the contenders, with the exception of commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, whose unyielding anti-abortion stance has some social conservatives energized.
"I don't see it this time -- except for Buchanan -- for anybody," says Mr. Roberts, a Des Moines lawyer and Republican national committeeman. "Iowa Republicans basically like all the candidates. They feel good about the candidates. The state's economy is better. Life is pretty good."
Here, as in New Hampshire, Mr. Forbes has emerged as Mr. Dole's main challenger, cutting into the senator's support with a string of ads that condemn him as just another "Washington politician."
Tom Synhorst, a top Dole strategist in Iowa, claims Mr. Forbes has spent close to $4 million on Iowa campaign ads (several times what Mr. Dole has), "three-fourths of it aimed right at us."
Mr. Dole complained again about the attacks yesterday, telling reporters that he's "taken a lot of flak" from Mr. Forbes.
"I ought to get another Purple Heart before this is over," said the senator, who has made his record as a severely wounded World War II veteran a focus of his campaign.
While many Iowa Republicans still say they are undecided, rival campaigns say Mr. Forbes' hard-hitting ads may have backfired with at least some voters. Mr. Dole repeatedly condemned negative campaigning during his Iowa swing, which ended with his return to Washington last night.
Mr. Dole says his candidacy is "back on track," and he has struck a more positive tone in recent speeches. But he has continued to strike back at Mr. Forbes with an ad blitz of his own, including one TV spot that labels the publishing magnate as "untruthful."
And despite his attempts to remain above the back-and-forth on the campaign trail, Mr. Dole has been unable to resist tossing occasional barbs at his wealthy rival.
Asked by a voter in Ames what could be done to prevent a President Forbes from phasing out the federal government's ethanol program, which provides subsidies to Midwestern corn growers, Mr. Dole shot back: "The way would
to make sure he never has a chance. Phase him out and keep ethanol. That would be all right."
Mr. Dole also predicted that the Forbes campaign is "not going to last. Sooner or later, the American people aren't going to just say someone with absolutely zero experience and a lot of money ought to be president of the United States."
As he crisscrossed the state, dipping into most of the Iowa's media markets in the company of the popular Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Mr. Dole stressed his experience and years of leadership in Washington, as well as his Midwestern ties.
"We want to remind people why they voted for Senator Dole eight years ago," says Bill Lacy, the senator's deputy national campaign manager, referring to Mr. Dole's 1988 Iowa caucus victory.
To that end, the campaign is airing an ad featuring Mr. Dole, wearing a parka over his business suit, and Mr. Grassley standing before a group of farmers.
"Bob Dole's one of us," Mr. Grassley says in the tag line of the ad, repeating the slogan of the '88 Dole campaign in Iowa, which was the high point of his presidential candidacy that year.
Mr. Dole, working to reconnect himself to voters, put it differently. He joked that he had been elected "president of Iowa" in 1988.