What Bush and Gore's Iowa Wins Mean

TIME's correspondents check in with reports from the Iowa caucuses.

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The first votes have been cast in the process that will elect the first administration of the new century. At 7 p.m. EST Monday, as the doors shut on the 2,131 precinct meetings better known as the Iowa caucuses, local delegates got down to the business of trying to convince their neighbors to vote for the various candidates.

The early results showed a Texas-sized victory for George W. Bush at around 42 percent of the vote (better than his modest projection of 37 percent, but less than some pundits predicted), and a respectable showing for publishing heir Steve Forbes at roughly 30 percent. Conservative pundit Alan Keyes, who gained major points in the final days of campaigning in Iowa, scored a strong third at 14 percent, with John McCain, who didn't campaign in the state, taking 6 percent. On the Democratic side, the preliminary numbers had Al Gore leading Bill Bradley by a nearly two-to-one margin. The order of these showings in both parties falls in order with poll predictions, although the proportions are different. Gore claimed a considerably bigger victory and Bush staked a smaller margin over Forbes than expected.

The Iowa caucuses hold a different meaning for each party. Hawkeye Democrats are fairly middle-of-the-road, so the caucuses are seen as a reasonably accurate barometer of how the candidates fare nationally. Knowing this, Bill Bradley spent the maximum $2.2 million and twice as much time as Al Gore campaigning in Iowa. But it was a risk, because it took time away from his campaign in New Hampshire, where he had a better chance of winning. A lopsided loss shows the Bradley camp that it's time to adopt a new strategy — and fast — before the primaries roll around. For Gore, who's been expected for the past three years to coast to victory, anything less than a resounding win is seen as a blow to his air of invincibility.

On the GOP side, Iowa's importance is a bit more complex. About 40 percent of the state's registered Republicans fall in line with the Christian right, a percentage well above the national average. So a win in the state doesn't necessarily reflect how the rest of the country will vote. Ultraconservative Pat Robertson, for example, beat out George Bush Sr. in 1988, before getting crushed nationwide. But in 2000, trying to follow a two-term Democratic administration that the nation largely feels good about, the name of the game for realistic Republican candidates is moderation, hence George W.'s slogan "compassionate conservatism." The GOP front-runners were thus faced with the task of trying to score points in the state without alienating the rest of the country. Meanwhile, fiscal conservative Steve Forbes spent a huge chunk of time and his family fortune in hopes of sneaking away with a symbolic conservative victory in the state.

Here's how TIME's correspondents in Iowa scored the day's events.

Jay Carney, reporting from the Republican caucus in District 69 in Des Moines: "Bush won this district with 37 votes to Forbes' 19; Keyes had 10 and McCain 6. So Bush was able to surpass the crucial 50 percent mark. The most interesting thing was how wired the Bush people had it. At this tiny little precinct meeting, they had a Texas state senator and Texas state representative. If they did that in this small district you can imagine how they'll be everywhere else." (Bush said he wanted to gain 37 percent in the state. His big test was how much of the conservative vote he could woo away from Forbes and Keyes. District 69, which is relatively affluent, is not a true test, as it is one of the less conservative districts among Republicans.)

Eric Pooley, reporting from the Democratic caucuses in District 69: "If the numbers hold up and Gore wins by 30 points, then you've got to count that as a blowout for him. You wouldn't know it to sit through the caucus — it was all very civil between the Gore and Bradley camps. But since Bradley was ahead in the polls at one point, you've got to consider this a landslide for Gore." On the Republican races: "That sounds like a good victory, but still Bush wanted to do better than 42. It's good for Forbes."