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Gramm Ties Front-Runner Dole In Iowa Straw Poll

August 20, 1995

AMES, Iowa (AP) _ In a surprisingly strong showing, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm tied Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole in a Iowa’s Republican presidential straw poll Saturday night, holding his own against the GOP front-runner in his Midwestern back yard.

Dole and Gramm each got 2,582 votes, according to results the Iowa Republican Party said were tentative because of the closeness. Commentator Pat Buchanan was a distant third with 1,922 votes and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander fourth with 1,156 votes.

The remarkable results capped a carnival like day at the Hilton Coliseum in Ames, as campaigns brought in busloads of supporters from out of state in an effort to prove their early organizational prowess.

The influence of outsiders led several of the candidates to characterize the event as meaningless _ and hardly a judge of Iowa organizations.

But Dole just a few days ago had predicted a victory here, and his aides were clearly despondent as the results were tabulated. Gramm, on the other hand, was exultant, returning to the convention hall to claim the tie as a big victory.

``The people of Iowa want to put the federal government on a budget like everybody else and that is why they voted for me tonight,″ Gramm said. ``If we can beat Bob Dole in Iowa we can beat him anywhere in America.″

Dole advisers insisted that would never happen when the votes actually count.

Scott Reed, Dole’s campaign manager, disputed the notion that the vote was a rejection of Dole’s message, or that the combined Gramm-Buchanan vote showed deep dissatisfaction with the front-runner among the party’s conservative activists.

``All it tells me is they did a good job of getting a lot of people to come to Ames today,″ Reed said. ``This is not going to affect the results of the caucuses in February.″

In a statement, Dole dismissed the results, saying the event was ``a great fund-raiser, but I doubt it reflects the feelings of most Iowa Republicans. Naturally, I would have preferred to finish first alone. But I am confident of our ultimate victory in the February caucuses.″

Gramm begged to differ. ``It tells me we are going to win this election,″ he said, calling his showing ``a stunning victory.″ ``This is a result that says the status quo is not good enough.″

Gramm and other rivals quickly made the case that the vote proved Dole a fragile front-runner, vulnerable even in his Midwestern backyard.

``It shows us what we have been finding out in the field _ Dole’s support is not solid,″ said Mark Helmke, a top aide to Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, who finished way back in seventh place with 466 votes.

For Gramm, the victory was a much-needed boost after weeks of speculation that his campaign was sputtering and being overtaken by the hard-charging Buchanan, who has mounted a major effort to attract Christian conservative voters across Iowa.

Buchanan said allowing out-of-staters to vote ``diminishes the importance of this.″ Still, he said ``it’s important to the degree that it’s the first time we all get to take our cars out on the track and we get to see if someone’s got unexpected engine trouble. If so, you got six months to fix it.″

A $25 ticket guaranteed anyone a chance to vote _ regardless of whether they were from Iowa or eligible to vote in its kickoff caucuses six months from now. The event raised $300,000 for the Iowa Republican Party _ and the ire of several candidates who said the loose rules meant the day’s trophy would go to the highest bidder, not the candidate with the best message or organization.

``I do not think the Iowa straw poll should be for sale,″ complained Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who was booed lustily throughout his evening speech and finished dead last with 67 votes of the 10,598 cast.

California Gov. Pete Wilson, eighth with 129 votes, also was critical, saying the results would be meaningless and ``the real winners are going to be Amtrak and Greyhound.″ Wilson joked whoever won would ``go high on my list for consideration as secretary of transportation.″

Before the event, Dole aides chalked up such criticism as sour grapes from candidates who were destined to lousy showings. But as it became clear Dole was not going to get the clear victory he had hoped for, his advisers and supporters began to play down the event’s significance.

``This doesn’t mean anything,″ said Dole deputy campaign chairman Bill Lacy. ``It is just another straw poll.″

But Dole, like Gramm, had imported supporters by the busload. And in a pre-event mailing, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, a Dole supporter, said that, ``Next to the caucuses, the state party’s straw poll will be the single most important event in the campaign.″

The balloting inside the Hilton Coliseum in Ames capped a festive day outside, as the campaigns served up a day of music, food and pep talks to their supporters. The candidates got into the act, aprons and all.

Gramm even had some help serving pork and beans from actor Charlton Heston. Alexander belted out a few tunes on the piano, while Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar got a colorful welcome from a group of Iowa State University students wearing ``Lugar for President″ togas. Businessman Morry Taylor, a GOP longshot, arrived in a caravan of motor homes and Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

Marveling at the carnival-like atmosphere, Alexander strategist Mike Murphy said of the event: ``It’s kind of like a chess championship at the circus _ it’s kind of important and kind of silly.″

Many of those on hand to vote were weary hours before they got the chance because of the long trip to get here.

Wally Kazmierczak of Chicago, for example, got up before dawn to board a bus for the six hour ride to Iowa’s corn country so he could vote for Gramm. He said there were five buses from Chicago, and more from elsewhere in Illinois.

Arvin Michel made the trip in from suburban Denver to vote for Buchanan, who he described as ``the only true conservative in the field.″

More common were folks like Arvin Boote, a farmer who traveled from Hull in the northwest corner of the state to throw his support behind Alexander.

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