DES MOINES, Iowa -- After a long, hard-fought campaign that moved out of the farm sheds and onto the airwaves, Iowans will vote tonight in precinct caucuses throughout the state, offering the first real signs of how Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole maintains a comfortable lead, although he is only drawing the support of less than a third of likely GOP caucus-goers.
Just behind the front-runner is a crowded field, with publishing magnate Steve Forbes -- who until recently was closing in on Mr. Dole -- as well as commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas all battling it out for second- and third-place showings.
Tonight's vote, which will take place in churches, schools, meeting halls and even homes in the state's 2,142 precincts at 7 p.m. Central time, closes a campaign segment noted for its vitriolic tone -- and its expense.
Mr. Forbes' money -- $18 million in the last 90 days of 1995, and millions more so far this year -- forced his opponents to try to keep up with his TV and radio ad saturation.
"It's an overkill," said Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad, who supports Mr. Dole. Speaking on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley" yesterday, Mr. Branstad said Mr. Forbes has bought more TV and radio time in the last six weeks than he has in four gubernatorial campaigns.
While the abundance of ads, most of them disparaging his opponents, quickly catapulted Mr. Forbes to the top tier of candidates, the last week brought signs that his support was beginning to wane.
The latest Iowa Poll by the Des Moines Register pointed to a Forbes backlash, with 46 percent of those surveyed saying they view Mr. Forbes in unfavorable terms. That compares with only 26 percent who said they viewed him unfavorably in December.
Some of Mr. Forbes' opponents have tried to capitalize on voters' apparent distaste for negative campaigning. Mr. Alexander has brought knee boots to campaign events, saying he needed them to sludge through all the mud. "I may need [hip] waders by the time we get to New Hampshire," he quipped.
While Mr. Alexander has steered clear of negative ads, many of the other candidates have joined the fray, jousting in 30-second spots and also on the stump.
Yesterday, as the candidates made their 11th-hour pitches at churches, restaurants and, as always, on TV talk shows, the sparring continued.
Referring to charges made by Mr. Forbes over the weekend that Mr. Dole hired a telemarketing company to make anonymous phone calls to voters distorting his record, the senator from Kansas said yesterday, "I'm still standing after all those negative ads. He's complaining about a phone call."
Still, Mr. Forbes demanded an apology. "I think what they should do is pledge, apologize first of all, and pledge not to engage in that kind of deceitful practice any more," Mr. Forbes told a news conference yesterday.
Mr. Gramm, appearing on CBS' "Face the Nation" yesterday morning, lashed out at the New Jersey businessman, saying, "One thing is clearly true about Steve Forbes. He can dish it out, but he can't take it."
But most of Mr. Gramm's attacks were aimed at Mr. Buchanan, the conservative candidate who appears to have gained ground here after his win in the Louisiana caucuses last week, and who is the senator's chief rival for the religious conservative vote.
"His economic ideas are kooky," said Mr. Gramm, whose dismal showing in the polls after nearly two years of campaigning in the state has been one of the surprises of this political season here.
Less surprising has been the aggressive courting of the Christian conservative vote -- which accounts for about 40 percent of the Republican electorate here -- and the prominence of social issues, such as abortion, in the campaign.
Friday night, three of the GOP presidential candidates -- Mr. Buchanan, Mr. Gramm and former Maryland senatorial candidate Alan L. Keyes -- spoke, with their families by their sides, at a rally to ban same-sex marriages. With well over 1,000 people filling the pews at an evangelical church here, it was one of the most well-attended events of the entire campaign season.
Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, said yesterday that religious conservatives seemed to be leaning most heavily to Mr. Dole and Mr. Buchanan. Support for Mr. Forbes, the one GOP candidate who has not articulated a firm, anti-abortion rights position, "is falling like a rock from an upper story of a building," Mr. Reed said on "This Week With David Brinkley."
Mr. Branstad is expecting the turnout at tonight's caucuses to break the record set in 1988 when 110,000 Iowans set out from their homes on a cold, midwinter night to cast their ballot. Good weather was forecast across the state for today.
Although success in the Iowa straw poll does not always translate into the GOP nomination -- George Bush won the caucuses in 1980, Bob Dole won in 1988 -- it is an early sign of the strength of the candidates and generally serves to narrow the field.
It also sets the stage for New Hampshire, where the nation's first presidential primary takes place in eight days -- and where most of the GOP candidates will be heading at the crack of dawn tomorrow.