Republicans square up for opening battle

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The Independent Online
RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

The Republican presidential hopefuls were criss-crossing Iowa yesterday in a culminating effort to garner support at Monday's caucuses, the first major battle in the 1996 war for the White House, and one whose outcome looks more unpredictable by the day.

"Voter Indecision Abounds, Caucuses May Be Up For Grabs" ran the front- page headline yesterday in the Des Moines Register, the state's leading newspaper, summing up the situation precisely. In one of the established but stranger rituals of a presidential year, an expected 100,000 Iowa Republicans are to gather on Monday in halls and assembly rooms in 2,142 precincts across the state.

Two new polls give narrow leads to the longtime front-runner, Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, over his closest challenger, the upstart publishing magnate Steve Forbes; one by 20 per cent to 14 per cent, the other by 24 to 22 per cent, in statistical terms a dead-heat.

Perhaps more significant though, both polls suggest that perhaps a quarter of likely voters have not made up their minds, while the other candidates - notably Pat Buchanan, the conservative commentator, and Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee, who are given around 10 per cent apiece - are starting to close the gap. On all fronts uncertainty prevails. The religious right, which constitutes a third or more of Iowa Republicans, is weighing the choice between Mr Buchanan, the man of the moment after his upset win in Louisiana on Tuesday, Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, Mr Dole and the firebrand orator Alan Keyes, to whom one poll gave 6 per cent support.

Mr Forbes's support shows signs of having reached a plateau, amid indications that Iowans have had more than enough of the negative advertising in which the millionaire magazine publisher has led the way. He has saturated television and radio outlets with commercials attacking Mr Dole primarily, but also any other candidate with the temerity to challenge his flat-tax proposals.

For his part the Mr Dole, 72, who has been courting religious conservatives more assiduously, struggles to convince voters that the virtues of steadfastness and experience outweigh the drawbacks of age and over-familiarity. Mr Gramm is pouring money into a last-minute advertising blitz of his own, as he seeks to recover from his disastrous loss to Mr Buchanan in Louisiana. If he does not gain "one of the three tickets out of Iowa", Mr Gramm has hinted, he may call it quits.

In fact, Monday's caucuses are but a preliminary winnowing before the vital primary in New Hampshire on 20 February. In both states, however, the broad picture is similar - of voters unhappy with the field of candidates on offer, uncertain of who to support, and unsure that any of them can beat President Bill Clinton in November. Though he is unopposed by any major Democrat, Mr Clinton will be campaigning in Iowa today, positioning himself as a leader above the fray as the nine Republicans in the field tear each other apart.

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