- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 1999

DES MOINES, Iowa A consensus began to emerge here yesterday that George W. Bush had passed the test of Monday’s Republican debate, but Iowans remained split over whether Sen. John McCain’s attack on ethanol was an insult to farmers or a bold political gamble.
The televised debate remained the dominant topic in local media even after the network heavyweights and national newspapers departed Des Moines, followed closely by the candidates themselves.
“Ethanol issue stirs pot at lively Republican debate,” read the front-page headline of the Des Moines Register. WHO, the local radio station where Ronald Reagan once did play-by-play for baseball games he never saw, fielded calls all morning from people who wanted to discuss the debate.
“It’s really kind of fun for political junkies,” said host Jan Mickelson, the self-described “morning mouth” at the station. “We’re spoiled rotten because the politicians pretend to love us once every four years.”
He added with a laugh: “Unless you’re Steve Forbes, who’s just become a permanent fixture here.”
By noon, however, the debate had dropped to the ninth story on WHO-TV, the local NBC affiliate that co-sponsored the forum. After providing wall-to-wall coverage only a day earlier, the TV station relegated the debate story to a slot behind a minor bus crash and the arrival of a few snowflakes.
Still, opinions were coalescing around the notion that Mr. Bush, while not dazzling, performed sufficiently better than he did in two previous faceoffs this month, thereby calming skeptics in his own party at least through the holidays.
“I think Bush clearly did himself some good with caucus goers,” said David Yepsen, the Register’s political editor. “He came in here sort of a besmirched front-runner, with a lot of questions about his ability and his confidence, a lot of his people wondering: Gee, is this a guy we really want to back?’ And I think he went a long way toward easing a lot of that.”
Mr. Yepsen said the Texas governor helped his standing among Iowa’s social conservatives, who make up some 40 percent of caucus goers, by crediting Jesus Christ for having turned his life around.
“I thought his answer about Jesus Christ was a powerful answer for the caucus goer,” Mr. Yepsen said. “I look at this a little different than some people do. I’m not thinking of 2.8 million Iowans, or 2 million adults or 1.5 million voters. I’m thinking of 100,000 to 125,000 caucus goers. That’s the target audience.
“He said something to social conservatives,” Mr. Yepsen said. “It is persuasive to them that this person has had that religious experience in his life.”
While positive reviews of Mr. Bush’s performance were piling up, a growing number of Iowans were taking umbrage at Mr. McCain’s unprovoked denunciation of ethanol during the debate. The Arizona senator used the forum to proclaim his opposition to tax breaks on the alternative fuel that is made from corn.
“McCain did himself tremendous damage,” said Jim Hutter, associate professor of political science at Iowa State University. “He decided to make a case that just would anger everybody in the state.
“He is the one guy in the group who stood to gain a lot as a result of this debate,” said Mr. Hutter, who teaches voting behavior and campaigns. “He could have moved some numbers. But if he moved any numbers, they’re down, not up.”
But Mr. Yepsen argued that while agriculture is the biggest single component of Iowa’s economy, most residents of the state make their living in other ways. He said Mr. McCain was going after those other voters, hoping they would respond to his contrarian courage.
“I know this runs contrary to the conventional wisdom, but John McCain did himself some good here,” Mr. Yepsen said. “You lose some votes to gain some votes that’s the oldest political gambit in the book. And Iowans, especially, respect politicians who are stand-up guys.”
Mr. Bush, who said during the debate that he “strongly” supports ethanol tax breaks, seemed comfortable mixing it up with Mr. McCain. In a news conference yesterday, the Texas governor appeared buoyed by his positive performance.
“It was more free-flowing a debate,” he said. “I like the format where I could, if need be, defend myself and certainly be able to step in a make a point.
“In some of the earlier debates, I saw opportunities move by that I just didn’t have a chance to express myself,” Mr. Bush said. “In this one last night, as you know, there’s a lot of interchange. And I like the interchange. I like the ability to politically joust.”
The Texas governor also liked the endorsement he received from former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who was one of Mr. Bush’s Republican rivals until dropping out of the race in October.
“His performance has been steady, it has been solid, it has been presidential,” said Mr. Alexander as he stood beside Mr. Bush at the news conference.
Mr. Alexander was asked by The Washington Times whether “steady” was good enough to beat Vice President Al Gore.
” Steady’ is in my view one of the most complimentary adjectives I could use to describe a president of the United States,” he said. “Al Gore is a steady figure. I think Republicans who underrate Al Gore are whistling in the dark. He’ll be a tough competitor.
“And we’ll need a tough competitor to beat him,” Mr. Alexander concluded. “Governor Bush is the tough, steady, disciplined person who can defeat Al Gore.”

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