MARSHALLTOWN, IOWA — MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa -- Eating a pork tenderloin sandwich the size of a catcher's mitt, Chad Binder is puzzled by an apparent contradiction in Marshall County's reaction to the Republican presidential campaign.
He says there has been enough activity so there should be a big turnout at the caucuses Monday night. But, he adds, "A lot of people here have been turned off by the negativity of the campaign."
All the candidates have passed through this community of 26,000 an hour's drive northeast of Des Moines, a town typical of those the campaigns have been targeting for weeks. Voters are being flooded with telephone calls and mailings, including some from Mr. Binder, a 25-year-old law school dropout working for Lamar Alexander.
Instead of excitement, though, there's confusion and frustration.
Thomas Bower, the county Republican chairman, is puzzled by the mood.
"I don't know what I can tell you," he says. "I just don't know what the turnout's going to be. I have no way to measure it. A lot of people are frustrated."
If there is a conventional wisdom in Marshalltown with three days left in the campaign, it holds that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole probably will win here, as polls suggest he would do statewide. But no one seems terribly excited about the prospect.
"People have kind of accepted the inevitable -- that Dole's our man," says Mr. Bower. "The party regulars, they want to beat [President] Clinton, and they think Dole's the only prayer." Although officially neutral as county chairman, Mr. Bower plans to vote for Mr. Dole.
But the conventional wisdom here also holds that many voters are still undecided and that many voters are angered by a campaign that has been conducted largely through television commercials, most of them negative 30-second attack spots.
"We've been trying to tell these politicians that we want them to get down to serious business and then they come here and insult our intelligence," said Liz Rumbauer, who lives on a farm eight miles east of town.
One possibility is significant change in public support over the weekend -- a change that in Marshall County could mean gains by either millionaire publisher Steve Forbes or Mr. Alexander, the former Tennessee governor.
John Pace of Laurel, a Republican precinct chairman, is one of those who has not accepted the inevitability of Bob Dole.
"I'm a little bit tired of the insiders," he says, "In fact, I'm real sick and tired of politicians -- so I'm probably going to hold my hand up for Steve Forbes."
Mr. Pace says there are "an awful lot of undecided that are talking favorably about Steve Forbes." And Mr. Bower, also the ++ pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, reports that Mr. Forbes made a strong impression when he spoke at a senior citizens center the other day.
"I couldn't believe the crowd," he says. "It was fantastic." And the magazine publisher, says Mr. Bower, "showed that he truly is not one of them -- his whole demeanor is different."
But there are questions and doubts about Mr. Forbes. Vicki Schwalbach, an activist Republican who lives in rural Gilman, says she was leaning toward Mr. Dole because he's a known quantity.
"At one time I was going for Forbes," she says, "but then I keep thinking, 'No, he doesn't have enough foreign policy experience,' and I keep going back to Dole."
Mr. Forbes' lavish spending is also an issue here.
Dean Adams, the county treasurer who is Mr. Alexander's most prominent supporter in Marshall County, says: "I hope we can't buy the presidency of the United States. People are willing to sell their souls for a quick fix, and that's sad."
Mr. Alexander may be getting some credit from the voters from the perception that he has run a less negative campaign than his rivals -- a perception that has grown from his strategy of attacking his foes on the stump but not harshly in the television commercials that are providing most Iowans their basic "information" about the campaign.
"I'm not sure I'm going to vote for Alexander because I sort of like Pat Buchanan," says Kenneth Rieder, a retired farmer, "but I'll give him credit for not being as nasty as these other people. They're downright unpleasant. I keep hitting the "mute" button every time I see one of those ads coming up again."
Republicans say that Mr. Buchanan, the conservative commentator who scored an upset in Louisiana this week, and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, whom he defeated there, have less of a presence in the county than the other candidates. But that impression may be wrong if either or both attract a big turnout among social-issue conservatives.
"There's a large pro-life movement here, but it's not very visible," Mr. Bower says.
The enduring myth about Iowa is that the critical difference will be the strength of campaign organizations in identifying supporters and then getting them to the caucuses Monday night.
But in this case the differences may not be significant. Although Mr. Dole is credited with the most sophisticated organization, activists here report they are getting almost as many phone calls and mailings from the Alexander campaign and even more from the Forbes operation.
The Forbes campaign -- and particularly its reliance on telephone canvassing -- is intense enough to raise questions about whether turnout may be skewed with newcomers.
Virtus Brockman, a precinct chairman in Melbourne, says, "I've started having some people call me [to find out about the caucuses] that I didn't know lived in the area."
Although a normal turnout in his precinct might be 25 voters, Mr. Brockman would not be surprised to see many more when the caucus opens at the fire station.
The critical point about the organization question is whether it has simply been overwhelmed by weeks of television commercial warfare. "What we're seeing here," says Donald Fuqua, a salesman who plans to attend his first caucus Monday, "is a mud-wrestling match, so much mud you can't figure out what's real and what isn't. I guess I'm going to vote for the first one who washes up this weekend."