The No-Show-Me State

Is John McCain burning the bridges of Madison County?

He'll never make it that far, she predicts.

"I think he'll be done. I think he'll be done not only here, but across the country."

Jake Tapper, Washington correspondent for the online magazine Salon, isn't quite so pessimistic. McCain's absence didn't much matter one way or the other, he concludes.

"People were too busy eating pork, and excited about the candidates who were there, to really be talking much about McCain," Tapper says.

But Tapper, who has written about McCain, says he personally missed the senator.

"I want[ed] to see him out there, just because as a reporter I find him compelling. I find him compelling as a person and as a candidate," he says.

Tapper notes that the senator's name did come up after the results were in and Elizabeth Dole took third -- a coveted spot behind the well-greased George W. Bush and Steve Forbes. In the after-spin, Tapper says, Dole's campaign staff took McCain on -- obviously recognizing that he, like Dole, is a "mainstream Republican alternative to Bush."

Of the Doleites, Tapper says, "They had two talking points. One was that they only put $250,000 into the race. . . . The other thing was, they started attacking McCain. I mean, without provocation -- nobody brought him up -- they starting talking about McCain."

By not attending, Tapper observes, McCain didn't have to risk a poor finish -- like Lamar Alexander, who's already out of the race, or Dan Quayle, who I say should be.

But Tapper says the straw poll wasn't quite the sham McCain predicted.

"I don't think anyone had any idea that the thing was actually going to be as legitimate as it ended up being," he says. "Four years ago, there was a lot of fraud. I think one Republican consultant was joking about how he voted seven times. . . . This year you couldn't do that. They had this indelible, neon pink stamp on your thumb that probably wouldn't come out for a week, and you had to show ID and you had to be an Iowan. So, when you have 25,000 actual Iowans vote, it's a legitimate event."

And, Tapper adds, "No matter what, when it's said and done, even if you bused them in, gave them pork, presented Crystal Gayle or Debby Boone or whomever. . . . You still gotta get them to give up a Saturday, spend a day in the sun and line up to vote."

But it may not be too late for McCain in Iowa. After all, he did get 83 votes -- and that was without showing up.

Steve Churchill was a bus captain for Lamar Alexander.

"I guess I didn't really think about John McCain's situation 'cause my job was pretty clear. That was to get people there for Lamar. Which, as it turns out, didn't happen quite as much as I wanted it to," Churchill says.

Now he has to find a new candidate. Churchill isn't ready to commit quite yet; he's been campaigning for Alexander for six years. But McCain's on his short list.

"I like John McCain. I really respect the positions he's taken as a senator. I hope he competes. I think there's really a lot of people that would see him as, if not a first choice, then at least a strong second choice," Churchill says.

Could McCain pull it together to compete in the Iowa caucuses, after taking such pleasure in lambasting the party's straw poll?

"He has six months to organize," Churchill observes, although he, too, mentions the ethanol issue.

Of McCain, Churchill says, "He may decide, 'I can't compete in both Iowa and New Hampshire, so I'm going to skip Iowa completely and go to New Hampshire.'

"You know, in the last 20 years, that hasn't really been a successful strategy. . . . I don't know anyone who has won New Hampshire that has not competed in Iowa, hasn't been one of the top-tier leaving Iowa. So that would be a risky strategy, to avoid Iowa. I can understand someone skipping the straw poll, but I wouldn't recommend them skipping the caucuses."

When all is said and done, Iowa does have its reputation to retain.

"I have to tell you something, talking about being in the front-row seat of all this," Janet Metcalf says. "When [George W.] Bush first came to Iowa, I was in the crowd, just sort of listening and watching. And a reporter from the Los Angeles Times came up and he asked me what I was thinking. And then he said, 'Well, what did you think of Governor Bush? Was he taller than you thought he'd be, shorter, whatever?'

"And I said, 'Listen, this is Iowa. We've seen these old guys already. I saw him eight years ago when he campaigned for his dad.' This is nothing new. I've shaken hands with everybody from Dick Gephardt to, well, Clinton was at the [Iowa] Capitol once. I can't think of anybody in contemporary politics who hasn't traipsed their way through Iowa."

With the exception, she's reminded, of Arizona Senator John McCain.

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