For a change, the race now looks murkier on the other side of the aisle. Although Bush celebrated his comfortable plurality in the field of six candidates, his mere 13 percent margin over perennial also-ran Steve Forbes is a speed bump to the Bush juggernaut heading into New Hampshire. Most pundits said Bush, who took roughly 43 percent of the vote, needed 50 percent to maintain his air of invincibility.
It wasn't for lack of trying, says TIME correspondent Jay Carney, reporting from the Republican caucus in District 69 in Des Moines, where Bush was able to surpass the 50 percent mark. "The most interesting thing was how wired the Bush people had it," says Carney. "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 were everywhere else."
The caucus results of Bradley and John McCain should send a message to future underdogs. The two are both shooting for the centrist vote in their parties, casting themselves as political mavericks bent on coalition-building. But McCain shunned Iowa for New Hampshire, where that brand of centrism plays well with registered independents, who can vote in the state primary. Bradley, meanwhile, took a gamble by targeting Iowa, where the caucuses are closed to non-party members. Right now McCain's looking like the smarter man. While Bradley was busy getting whupped by the candidate with the party establishment behind him, McCain was back east compiling a near-double-digit lead over Bush in Granite State polls, and was able to smile at his 5 percent of the vote in Iowa, where he didn't campaign at all.
As for Bush, the Iowa result means that he not only needs to play catch-up with McCain, but also has to continue fending off conservatives Forbes and Alan Keyes following their surprise 30 percent and 14 percent showings, rerspectively. Forbes, the deep-pocketed heir to a publishing fortune, should be encouraged by his showing to stick around through at least early March, and could continue to unload attack ads on Bush beyond that. Keyes, meanwhile, was largely responsible for forcing Bush to adopt conservative positions in Iowa, such as coming out against Roe v. Wade and talking a harder line on tax cuts. Keyes' surprise showing in Iowa will also serve as fodder for him to remain aggressive in New Hampshire and beyond and thus force Bush to cede more of the centrist vote to McCain.
For Democratic front-runner Gore, though, there's now little incentive to change anything. "You've got to count that as a blowout for Gore," says TIME correspondent Eric Pooley, reporting from Iowa. "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." Now the Bradley camp has to adopt a new strategy and fast before the February 1 New Hampshire primary. Bradley's supporters for months have urged the ex-Knick to go on the attack. Instead he's taken a low-key approach, which at times comes off as smug and passionless, as though he considers himself above the common politicians who want to mix it up. In any event, time's running out for Bradley to take off the gloves, so we can probably expect a more inspired effort in New Hampshire. A loss in New Hampshire similar to the 65-35 drubbing in Iowa all but seals the party nod for Gore.