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Wilson Campaign Closes Iowa Office in Risky Move

By Dave Lesher
Los Angeles Times
SACRAMENTO, Calif.

Gov. Pete Wilson's presidential campaign announced a high-stakes gamble Monday by closing its operation in Iowa, site of the nation's first presidential caucus, and shifting more of its attention to early primaries in the Northeast.

The governor's aides described the move as cutting-edge presidential strategy in a year when so many states have scheduled early elections that none of the candidates will be able to seriously compete in every contest.

But Wilson's critics quickly seized the chance to say the governor's campaign must be in trouble if it is unable to muster the resources to compete in one of the nation's most closely watched presidential contests.

Defending the campaign's decision, Wilson campaign manager George Gorton said that "it used to be OK to campaign in (both) Iowa and New Hampshire, but now you've got six weeks for 32 other states."

"Once you make a decision that you can't spend enough time in both, you pick one," Gorton said.

"It's the beginning of the end for his campaign, obviously," responded Dan McClagan, spokesman for one of Wilson's rivals, former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander. "You cannot run a credible presidential campaign without putting forth an effort in Iowa."

Nelson Warfield, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's presidential campaign added: "This is a devastating blow for Pete Wilson's campaign. He's the first loser of the Iowa caucuses, and they are still five months away."

Both rivals noted that no candidate has ignored the Iowa caucus in the last 20 years and gone on to win his party's nomination. On the other hand, Gorton countered that Iowa also has not picked the Republican nominee in previous primaries, as evidenced by George Bush's third-place finish in 1988.

Wilson's decision reflects the huge task he faces in trying to boost his campaign into the top tier of contenders. And it indicates that the campaign's strategy is still evolving since Wilson was scheduled to stop in Iowa on Monday. Just last week he visited the state during his announcement tour.

Wilson's campaign did get off to a late start compared to other candidates, announcing his exploratory committee in March and formally kicking off his bid just two weeks ago. The governor also fell behind on his fund-raising schedule when he lost his voice for two months after throat surgery.

Gorton insisted Monday that the campaign will raise the money it needs to compete, but he declined to say if it will reach its initial goal of $20 million by Dec. 31.

Wilson opened a campaign headquarters in Des Moines in June, his first outside of California. But two months later, the campaign got a good look at how much work it would take to do well in Iowa caucuses when a straw poll of GOP voters put Wilson in eighth place with just 128 votes.

At the time, Wilson aides said they did not take the straw poll seriously because the rules allowed campaigns to buy unlimited $25 tickets and to bring in supporters from out of state. But Monday, campaign aides acknowledged that the straw poll results helped persuade them to close their Iowa operation. Because Iowa's presidential voting is done in a caucus, not a primary, they said its vote is more reflective of organizational skills than presidential messages.

"The results of the Ames straw poll last month have served to further convince us that a caucus situation would not reward the candidate with the strongest message and strongest vision for America's future," Gorton said in a statement.

"Rather, the caucuses reward campaigns that are talented at moving relatively small groups of supporters from one location to another."

Political observers have portrayed the 1996 Iowa caucus as a race for second place, since Dole is a heavy favorite. The race took on more meaning at the straw poll, however, when Dole tied for first with Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.

In the aftermath, Gorton said the Wilson campaign figured it could only hope for a third-place finish in Iowa even if it invested significant resources.

Wilson's campaign also faced a challenge in Iowa because, historically, the caucus has been heavily influenced by the Republican Party's religious right, most significantly when it turned out in 1988 to boost televangelist Pat Robertson into a second-place finish over Bush. That could prove a problem for Wilson, since he has been a target of religious right groups because of his support of abortion rights.