DES MOINES, Iowa -- Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush seized the early lead in the 2000 presidential contest by handily winning the Iowa precinct caucuses last night.
Gore crushed former Sen. Bill Bradley by roughly 2-to-1, making next week's New Hampshire primary all but do-or-die for the Democratic challenger.
On the Republican side, an impressive turnout of social and religious conservatives helped Steve Forbes to a solid second-place finish, within shouting distance of Bush.
But the biggest surprise was the third-place showing by another conservative, Alan L. Keyes, the twice-defeated Senate nominee from Maryland, who ran well ahead of better-known and better-financed candidates in the Republican caucuses.
Keyes, reacting mildly to the biggest night of his political life, called it "a good jumping-off point" for the coming round of primaries.
"We'll just continue doing what we have done," Keyes said, adding that if voters keep responding to his passionate message of moral revival, "I would praise God and give him the glory."
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who campaigned sparingly in this state, finished a disappointing fifth, with only 5 percent.
McCain's supporters had hoped the waves of favorable national publicity that his candidacy has received might boost him into third place.
Bush, whose performance here did nothing to shake his front-runner status, said he was "thrilled" by his 41 percent total, which surpassed the previous record for a Republican winner of a contested caucus, the 37 percent that Bob Dole drew here in 1988.
"My message of compassionate conservatism resonated loud," said Bush, whose father's upset victory in the caucuses 20 years ago led Ronald Reagan to put him on the 1980 Republican ticket as the vice presidential nominee.
"The people of Iowa want a leader who can unite our party and our country."
A survey of voters entering Republican caucus sites last night showed that Bush received the largest share of the votes of those who described themselves as religious conservatives, 35 percent. Forbes drew 27 percent of the Christian conservative vote, followed by Keyes with 21 percent.
Forbes close behind Bush
Forbes' well-oiled Iowa organization achieved its ambitious goals, keeping the wealthy magazine publisher within about 10 percentage points of Bush.
As the only candidate with the resources to compete with Bush's enormous campaign bankroll, the self-financed Forbes sent an early signal that the Texas governor might be forced to spend more money than he might wish to lock up the nomination.
"This is not a good night for the power brokers in Washington, D.C.," Forbes told supporters who chanted "New Hampshire, New Hampshire" at a post-caucus celebration last night. "Thanks to you, they've finally met their match."
Forbes had hoped to head into next week's primary as the clear choice of Republican conservatives. His anti-tax message should appeal to economic conservatives in that state, which has a smaller proportion of social conservatives than Iowa does.
Keyes, who has spent about as much money nationwide as Forbes expended in Iowa alone, is likely to be Forbes' main challenger on the right in that contest and in the South Carolina primary Feb. 19.
Keyes drew large crowds in recent days and has become something of a media darling in his second presidential try.
Getting more respect
One sign of his rising status: The news media increasingly refer to him as a former Reagan administration official (he worked in the State Department and at the United Nations) instead of as a radio talk show host, his most recent vocation.
The 49-year-old Harvard graduate, a Gaithersburg resident, doubled his Iowa performance of four years ago, when he received 7 percent. That was enough to keep Patrick J. Buchanan from overtaking Bob Dole, who narrowly finished first in Iowa in 1996.
Last night, Keyes might have finished off a better-known figure in conservative circles, Gary Bauer, who ran fourth here.
On the Democratic side, Gore ruined Bradley's plan to spring an early surprise here. Bradley spent far more time and at least as much money in Iowa as Gore.
But his outsider message proved no match for the vice president's organizational muscle from labor unions and the party establishment.
Gore's relentless attacks knocked Bradley off his high-road campaign plan in recent weeks. And his poor showing in Iowa puts pressure on Bradley to rebound in New Hampshire, which has historically been more favorable to insurgent candidates and sometimes reverses the Iowa outcome.
Temperatures were in the 20s and 30s last night as some 200,000 Iowans made their way to 4,200 caucus sites around the state. Candidates have spent more campaign days and invested more money in Iowa than ever, hoping to use a stronger-than-expected showing in the caucuses as a springboard into New Hampshire.
Changes in performance
But whether or not the campaign here has any lasting impact on their chances in the days and weeks ahead, Iowans have seen a marked change in the performance of several candidates over the long campaign in the state.
Gore has shed the formality of his office, campaigning casually here in long-sleeved knit shirts and khakis. His performance as a candidate has improved considerably, peaking, in the view of some politicians, just as caucus day arrived.
"The competition has been good for both of us," Gore said, referring to himself and Bradley.
The vice president, who skipped Iowa in 1988 and lost the nomination, says, "I have learned my lesson." He spent 48 campaign days in the state over the past year.
Hoping to magnify the impact of his caucus victory, Gore pointed out last night how heavily the challenger has invested in trying to upset him here.
"I haven't spent as much money as Senator Bradley did; he's spent more money here than any Democratic candidate in history," Gore said, referring to his rival's heavy TV advertising campaign.
Role of labor endorsement
But the AFL-CIO's endorsement has given Gore an incalculable advantage: The organization needed to persuade union members and other voters to turn out on caucus night for the vice president.
The Bradley forces, trying to downplay their setback, said Iowa is only "the first step" on a long march to the nomination.
The campaign chairman, Douglas Berman, pointed to next week's contest in New Hampshire as the time when most voters around the country would begin paying attention to the contest.
Already, however, there were chances of tone from the Bradley camp. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, at an Iowa rally yesterday, raised an issue that Bradley himself has avoided thus far in the campaign: the Clinton White House scandals.
"Remember what happened in 1995 and 1996," Kerrey shouted. "Remember the financing of the re-election campaign."
Kerrey warned Democrats that the Republicans would use that issue against them in the fall election, if Gore is the nominee.