McCain: skip Iowa?

Back in 1999, the Straight Talk Express bypassed Iowa and went straight to New Hampshire, where Arizona Senator John McCain secured a victory over George W. Bush.  South Carolina was a different matter, for a variety of much-reported reasons. 

Now, eight years later, McCain has been to Iowa a few times and has repeatedly said he’s competing for votes in the Iowa Caucuses (to be held this December or January, but that’s a different story). McCain’s slogged through town hall meetings in Iowa and had assembled a staff in Iowa to organize precinct by precinct.  Then, last week McCain laid off about half of that Iowa campaign staff.  Now, the rumors are circling that McCain will skip Iowa again in order to conserve his scarce resources.   

Dave Roederer, McCain’s Iowa campaign chairman, offers his views on the "skip Iowa" scenario in this Radio Iowa story.  (UPDATE:  Todd Dorman of the Lee Newspapers offers up an "Adios Iowa" take.)

Many candidates of the past have been where McCain finds himself today.  Perhaps McCain could sidle up to fellow Senator John Kerry and ask about Kerry’s doldrums in the summer of 2003.  Or maybe catch Al Gore and talk about the stiff challenge he faced from Bill Bradley here in the summer of 1999.  (Even Bob Dole’s position as the GOP’s frontrunner was being challenged back in 1996, too — prompting magazine publisher Steve Forbes to rush into the fray in the fall, if you recall.)

Can McCain pull off the kind of rebound Kerry and Gore scored here?  At this point in 2003, Howard Dean was riding an anti-war wave but Kerry wound up recalibrating his campaign, putting more resources into Iowa, and riding the wave that was his 2004 Iowa Caucus night victory to the nomination.  Back in 1999, Al Gore used the Iowa Democratic Party’s fall fundraising dinner to strike back at Bradley, wearing the kind of clothes Naomi Wolf advised and delivering a speech aimed straight at his competitor — while Bradley took the stage as a pseudo-professor lecturing about a new kind of politics, pulling out his spectacles to read his speech. 

But those are examples from the other side of the aisle that probably don’t translate for the Republican McCain.  What are the lessons of Iowa Republican Party politics for the past few decades that might be applicable for a McCain candidacy in 2008?  I think the 1996 and 1988 campaigns of Bob Dole are most instructive here.  Dole was the perceived front-runner throughout that 1996 campaign, but polls in the months in advance showed Iowans had made up their minds about Bob Dole.  They were either in his camp or not. Dole held onto his group of stalwarts and wound up finishing first, but his victory wasn’t as stunning as it was in ’88.  Here are the February, 1996 results: Dole at 26 percent; Buchanan at 23 percent; Alexander at 18 percent; Forbes at 10 percent; Gramm at 9 percent; Keyes at 7 percent; Lugar at 4 percent.

That compares to 1988 in an interesting way.  The results of the 1988 Iowa Caucuses had Dole at 37 percent; Robertson at 25 percent; Bush (41) at 19 percent; Kemp at 11 percent and Du Pont at 7 percent. 

Does that mean Dole lost 11 percent of the Republicans he’d had in 1988?  Obviously the answer to that is no.  But it does show an erosion for Dole, who was a known-quantity for Iowa Republicans, and an erosion he was never able to fix.

For further comparison, George H.W. Bush’s 1980 Caucus victory had him securing 32 percent.  In 1988, the elder Bush got 19 percent, as mentioned above.

When McCain bypassed Iowa in 2000, he still wound up with five percent support in the Iowa Caucuses.  However, McCain is — like Dole and Bush (41) — a known-quantity for Iowa Republicans on this second go-round for the White House and he has the trends I’ve identified above to fight. 

Earlier today, one of McCain’s competitors offered this analysis of McCain’s future here and elsewhere:  "This is still early, although each day gets more and more precious," said Senator Sam Brownback.  "Things can change on a dime."

Moments ago, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee offered this:  "One thing that people need to remember is that several months ago, six months ago, John McCain was the inevitable frontruner.  He was the guy who couldn’t be beat.  A year ago it was Bill Frist.  It was George Allen….We started at the bottom and are moving in an upward direction.  Others started at the top, but they’re slipping backwards.  I’d rather be headed in the director we’re going than headed in the direction that some of the inevitable presidential contenders have seemed to headed in."

(BTW:  Huckabee called into the Radio Iowa newsroom after an event in Le Mars, Iowa — the ice cream capitol of the world.  Huckabee reports he ate sugar-free Blue Bunny ice cream.  "Blue Bunny is a very smart company and they know there’s a market out there for guys like me," Huckabee said.  "I tell you, you couldn’t tell the difference between (the sugar-free ice cream) and the bad stuff.")

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.