INDIANOLA, IOWA — INDIANOLA, Iowa -- Amid signs that Sen. Bob Dole has held off a stiff challenge from his presidential rivals, an unusually nasty Iowa caucus campaign is nearing an end today.
There were fresh charges of dirty politics yesterday as the Republican candidates wooed a large bloc of undecided voters. Newcomer Steve Forbes, whose support appears to be slipping in this state, accused the Dole campaign of using smear tactics against him.
"Senator Dole and others [are] absolutely distorting, smearing me," Mr. Forbes told reporters at a campaign stop in Mason City. "They're doing it as we speak. That's how low they've sunk."
Mr. Forbes said the Dole campaign had been anonymously phoning voters in Iowa and other states, making false claims about his positions on Social Security, abortion and gays in the military. Mr. Dole, who has publicly attacked Mr. Forbes' positions on those issues in the bitter TV ad wars raging in Iowa, denied the charge.
At a rally on a farm near Indianola, Mr. Dole, calling himself "pumped up," tried to strike a positive note.
"It is not Bob Dole vs. the other candidates," he said. "It is about experience and leadership."
A new public opinion poll, released yesterday, showed that Mr. Dole is gradually pulling away from the pack of nine candidates competing in tomorrow night's caucuses.
In a surprise, conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan appears to be surging and could overtake Mr. Forbes for second place, according to the poll by the Des Moines Register.
Among Republicans who said they were likely to attend a caucus, Mr. Dole was the choice of 28 percent, followed by Mr. Forbes, 16 percent; and Mr. Buchanan, 11 percent. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander drew 10 percent; Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, 8 percent; and former Senate candidate and radio talk show host Alan L. Keyes of Maryland, 4 percent.
The Iowa caucuses, the first major test of the presidential campaign, have a history of influencing nomination contests by weeding out also-rans and boosting the chances of the top two or three finishers. It was in Iowa, in 1980, that George Bush emerged as the top challenger to Ronald Reagan; in 1988, a second-place finish by television evangelist Pat Robertson signaled the arrival of religious conservatives as a force in the GOP primary process.
Republican leaders call this year's campaign the ugliest they've seen. And Iowans say all the name-calling and finger-pointing have turned them off.
Undecided vote gets boost
One unusual result: The undecided vote has gone up, instead of down. The Register poll found that almost one in five likely caucus-goers has yet to pick a candidate.
Mr. Forbes, whose late-starting campaign lacks the organizational depth thought to be crucial in caucus contests, has far outspent everyone else on TV ads. An equal-opportunity attacker, Mr. Forbes has used the ads to hurl the words "Washington politician" as an epithet against Mr. Dole, Mr. Alexander and Mr. Gramm, whose presidential hopes appear to be dying.
Gov. Terry E. Branstad estimated last week that Mr. Forbes, a wealthy publisher, had spent more on his Iowa campaign than Mr. Branstad did in his four statewide runs for office combined.
The unprecedented level of TV and radio advertising has all but overwhelmed the old-fashioned, grass-roots organizing and in-person politicking that used to set Iowa apart.
All the major contenders -- and even minor ones, such as Mr. Keyes -- have been running negative commercials. The lone holdout from the mudslinging, Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, has put on ads urging disgusted voters to "take a stab against negative campaigns" by backing him; the latest polls show him near the bottom of the pack, with 2 percent support.
'Unusual in Iowa'
"It's so unusual in Iowa for the caucuses to have such negative advertising," says University of Iowa political scientist Arthur Miller.
In the past, "when they have been negative, they haven't been negative against other candidates," he said, citing a hard-hitting trade ad by 1988 Democratic hopeful Rep. Richard A. Gephardt that condemned the lack of a level playing field for U.S. workers.
What impact these attacks will have on the choice of the Republican nominee should begin to become clear tomorrow night.
But already evident is that many of the assumptions about the campaign -- how it would be conducted and who the main players would be -- have to be recalibrated:
* Mr. Dole's march to the nomination looks somewhat less certain, with polls showing him in a close race with Mr. Forbes in New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary next week.
* The restive nature of the Republican electorate, even in a prosperous state such as Iowa, is reflected in the support for the angry, anti-Washington messages of Mr. Forbes, Mr. Buchanan,
Mr. Keyes and, to a certain degree, Mr. Alexander.
* This year's GOP presidential race was supposed to have been about completing the Republican revolution and finishing the party's takeover of the federal government. But that issue has all but disappeared on the campaign trail, submerged beneath the negativity and the flat tax idea Mr. Forbes has championed.
"The biggest surprise about the campaign has been the failure of any of the candidates to really address the central issue of 1996, which is, what the size and shape of the federal government should be," said Adam Meyerson of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"All of the candidates are for a smaller government, or at least say they are for it," he said. "But none of them is really addressing the great debate of the 1990s. The danger is that nobody now is articulating what the Republicans have been trying to do in Washington over the past year."
Mr. Gramm, the candidate who has pushed the GOP's Contract with America hardest, is facing elimination from the race. After saying last week that he would quit unless he finishes in the top three in Iowa, he said yesterday that he would continue regardless but that it would be "very difficult" if he finished fourth or lower.
Mr. Buchanan, whose candidacy got a boost after he defeated Mr. Gramm in Tuesday's Louisiana caucuses, appears on the verge of winning his war with the Texas senator for supremacy on the party's right flank.
A resurgent Buchanan candidacy could drag the debate over social issues, especially abortion, into the campaign spotlight, a prospect some Republicans dread and had hoped to avoid this year.
"It shows the split within the party between social conservatives FTC and everybody else," says Paul Wilson, a Republican campaign consultant who has developed a computer model of the 1996 nominating process. According to his estimates, a Dole-Forbes-Buchanan race has the potential to be a prolonged one.
Mr. Buchanan, in an effort to expand his base beyond social conservatives and economic nationalists within the Republican Party, is trying to lure working-class Democrats and independents into the caucuses. Highlighting his differences with the other GOP contenders over trade, his ads claim that "the Dole-Forbes-Gramm trade deal with Mexico" is selling out the interests of American workers.
"I think a lot of people that work for unions are perking up to what he's saying about NAFTA," says Sharon Rexroth, a GOP county chairwoman from Burlington who has remained neutral in the race. She predicts a crossover vote for Mr. Buchanan tomorrow night that would supplement his support among religious conservatives and members of the state's large anti-abortion movement.
A third-place showing by Mr. Buchanan might also doom the candidacy of Mr. Alexander.
The former U.S. education secretary has tried to capitalize on Iowa's weariness with attack ads by portraying himself as a positive force in the campaign. Yet, Mr. Alexander ran the campaign's first negative ad last summer in New Hampshire. Current Alexander spots denounce Mr. Dole as "a Washington )) insider for 35 years" and Mr. Forbes as "a Wall Street insider for all of his life."
Positive, negative mix
This two-pronged approach, mixing positive and negative messages, is typical of the way the Iowa race has been conducted.
Mr. Forbes, who has a new ad featuring a testimonial by his wife, Sabina, is also running spots attacking Mr. Dole's honesty and accusing him of trying to scare elderly Iowans by distorting Mr. Forbes' stance on Social Security. (In fact, Mr. Forbes has proposed fundamental changes in Social Security, by lowering benefits and payroll taxes for younger workers.)
Mr. Dole, who appears to have spent the most on TV in the closing days of the race, has unleashed a stream of ads against Mr. Forbes, accusing him of being "untruthful," "too liberal on welfare," a threat to Social Security and unprepared for the presidency.
At the same time, the Senate majority leader is flooding the airwaves with an endorsement spot by his leading Iowa supporter that condemns the "vicious ads" Mr. Forbes is running. "If you're like me," popular Sen. Charles E. Grassley says into the camera, "you're sick and tired of the negative ads by Steve Forbes."
Indeed, many Iowans say they're fed up with all the mud that's been slung.
"We're from the old school," says JoAnne Carrithers, a secretary from Council Bluffs. "You don't have to cut the other guy's throat to make yourself look good."
"I'm turned off by Forbes because I don't like negative campaigning at all," says Birdie Harms, a schoolteacher from Urbandale. "I wish they'd talk about what they have done."