• U.S.

CAMPAIGN ’96: IS FORBES FOR REAL?

16 minute read
Nancy Gibbs

FOR STUDENTS OF IRONY and pity, the presidential race last week offered its most piercing lessons yet. There was Bob Dole, the Dust Bowl, small-town boy who would still have the use of his right arm if the war had ended three weeks earlier, finding his fate in the pink, uncallused hands of a millionaire preppie publisher who grew up in a house with a name and claims to have honed his survival skills at summer camp.

After a long year of gritting his teeth and strumming the pro-life, family-values chords that are supposed to win Republican primaries, Dole now has to watch Steve Forbes, a pro-choice libertarian who favors rhythm and blues and Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays in the military, become the darling of primary voters in the space of four months. The veteran lawmaker proudly cites his 35 years of public service as the most gifted legislative problem solver of his generation, only to be scorched by Forbes ads labeling him a “Washington insider,” the guy who calls Gomorrah home. For Dole, it is a painful reprise of 1988, when he was beaten back by George Bush, another patrician playing the populist and making dubious promises about taxes. “Dole spent 35 years on the public payroll and became a multimillionaire,” Forbes teases lethally in Iowa. “But I won’t use the class-warfare argument against him.” A tough, genial and private man, Steve Forbes has surely known his share of sorrow. But it is hard to imagine his enduring as painful a season as Bob Dole now faces in these last cold days before his fate is decided.

In every presidential campaign, there comes a moment when the Establishment wakes up one morning, blinks hard and realizes that someone it had barely noticed before is emerging. It happened with the Republicans and Ronald Reagan in 1976, and then with the Democrats and Gary Hart in 1984. Last week it was the Republicans’ turn again, as party elders arrived at work all over the country Thursday morning, scanned the papers and nearly spilled their coffee trying to fathom the idea that a man they’d scarcely heard of six months ago might just turn out to be their standard bearer against Bill Clinton. Age of Possibility indeed.

But there it was: Steve Forbes, blanketing the airwaves in Arizona, beguiling crowds in Iowa three times the size of Dole’s, leading by nine points in a poll of New Hampshire voters. The survey had its flaws: it was conducted well before Bob Dole had uncaged his more ferocious ads. Some wise elders insisted that Dole would rebound and Forbes would slide; but others said no, the whole race is up for grabs now, Dole may lose New Hampshire and drop out, Phil Gramm may surge, the campaign may crack wide open and go all the way to California (only seven weeks away), or even all the way to the convention.

And where was Bob Dole, at the very moment when every minute not spent campaigning was a possibility lost? On the Senate floor, where he is king, where he has scored his biggest triumphs and built his national reputation–and at this particular moment in his life, the last place in the world where he wanted to be. February was supposed to be the month he finally escaped the capital, set aside the budget and breathed the fresh air of Iowa and New Hampshire. But by last week there was still nothing resembling a budget deal, and Democratic leader Tom Daschle, part responsible statesman, part mischief maker, refused to let the Senate adjourn without putting the issue to a vote. A Dole aide, making one last appeal to Daschle’s staff, told them, “I have never seen Senator Dole so angry as he is right now.”

Primary voters in general, and New Hampshire voters in particular, savor the right to reserve judgment, which suggests that Forbes is neither so flush nor Dole so wounded as last week’s freeze frame suggests. Dole has 2 1/2 weeks, a political lifetime, to regain the lead in New Hampshire, during which time Forbes will finally face the scrutiny afforded a front runner. Though Forbes has no real political record to help or haunt him, he is sure to have to answer for ideas he has promoted in his magazine, from his support of Gerald Ford over Ronald Reagan for the 1976 nomination and his (now modified) laissez-faire attitude toward illegal immigration to his proposal for a $1.50 gas tax and for repealing the law barring Presidents from appointing close relatives to government positions. (In a 1993 column he urged Bill Clinton to give Hillary a Cabinet position or to name her head of a federal agency.) “We expect the attacks will be personal and vicious,” says campaign manager Bill Dal Col. “It’s the hazing process of American politics,” Forbes adds. “It’s a sign of the progress we’re making.”

In the meantime, Lamar Alexander and Pat Buchanan have bumped up against a ceiling at 10%; Phil Gramm will try to hang on through the early races to reach his home turf in the Southern primaries on March 12. He parcels out his money dime by dime, flying around in rattletrap planes, wearing a beige wool coat he bought from a street vendor in Washington in 1979 and until recently sporting shabby shoes and a broken watch. Aides joke that they’ve thought the Senator would make one of them share a room with him if the local Super 8 gave him a room with double beds. “There are really two wars going on out here,” he says in a plane over South Carolina, eating his turkey sandwich. “An air war, television, and a ground war, campaign organization.” He has focused on the latter because he had no hope of winning the former. “You never know until the end whether you were right or not.”

Dole, Gramm and Alexander are still playing by the traditional rules even as Forbes sets out to rewrite them. Until now the confounding charm of early primary races was that for once the candidates had to go full retail, shaking every hand in Iowa, trolling through the north-country diners, meeting real voters face to face who would take their measure in their own sweet time. No one could ever afford to launch a full-scale air war so early; the candidates typically have held a substantial chunk of their limited funds in reserve for broadcast battles in the Super Tuesday states, as well as the big primaries of New York and California.

The catch is, of course, that Forbes’ funds aren’t limited, at least not by the spending rules that Dole and other publicly funded candidates must obey. Behind the scenes, the showdown in New Hampshire is taking a toll on Dole’s overall strategy. The majority leader had planned to spend about $1 million on advertising in the state. But Forbes’ deep pockets have, according to an official, pushed the Dole media budget in the region to $2.8 million–money that has to come from elsewhere: the South, the Midwest or California.

Because Dole is prevented by law from raising more money if he runs out, this is a gamble. Dole is now betting that if he wins New Hampshire, he’ll have enough momentum to carry himself through the rest of the calendar. In the meantime Dole can count on help from such special-interest groups as the National Association of Home Builders to attack the Forbes flat-tax plan (and its proposed elimination of mortgage-interest deductions) in direct mail, radio spots and newspaper advertisements. Dole needs to pull out all the stops because a loss in Iowa or New Hampshire could be the beginning of the end. “If Dole can’t get through these two hoops of fire,” said a senior adviser to the Senator’s campaign, “they’re dead.”

THE SHEER SIZE OF FORBES’ TV buy is hard to fathom, but imagine this: a beverage company like Budweiser or Coke will purchase enough airtime in a given week so that the average viewer will see the commercial 10 times, which equals 1,000 rating points. Forbes is beaming 3,400 rating points a week at New Hampshire via Boston TV right now, so that the typical voter there is seeing his ads 34 times a week; Dole has just less than half that. “Forbes is blowing everybody’s doors off,” says a Dole aide. And Forbes is doing this in several states at once, and not only on local TV and radio stations, but on cable TV as well. “Forbes gets you up; he drives you to work,” says Iowa House majority leader Brent Siegrist of Council Bluffs, who supports Lamar Alexander. “He’s on the radio all day at work; he drives you home and he puts you to bed.”

By last week both leaders had adopted that time-honored, sweet-and-sour strategy for knocking the other guy off: make nice on the ground; rain fire from the air. Forbes, who knows his political history, learned the tactic from Ronald Reagan, and thus has managed to appear sunny and sincere in his speeches while running a dark and at times deceitful media campaign. Surprisingly, it was Dole, the cautious veteran, who took a long time to split his personality. Dole’s staffers actually toughened the rhetoric in the days following his brittle response to Clinton’s State of the Union address. Only early last week did they realize that their tone was hurting them, and that Dole, who could make a grocery list sound mean, was reinforcing his hatchet-man image day after day.

So at midweek, Dole recruited a small army of surrogates to take up cudgels against Forbes and became smoother on the trail. His ads got tougher, his speeches softer. A new Dole ad in New Hampshire features the state’s popular, youthful Governor Steve Merrill, clad in green parka and walking across a snow-covered suburban yard, accusing Forbes of proposing a plan that would rob citizens of their cherished property-tax deduction. Meanwhile, Dole himself reserved his swipes for Bill Clinton and “the elites in charge” but ignored Steve Forbes. The furthest Dole would go was in Nashua, New Hampshire, where he said of the Forbes phenom that “it’s like a new restaurant. You try it out. But in a couple weeks, the gravy doesn’t taste right. The rolls are hard.” The selling point of Dole’s message was, once again, “adult leadership,” a candidate who had been tested by hardship and proved his mettle. “We got Dole back on the course of talking about why he should be elected and not why Forbes shouldn’t be,” said a relieved Dole official last week.

It is becoming clear, however, that there’s more to Forbes’ strength than the power of one idea. The flat tax may have put Forbes’ name on the table, but it accounts for only a decreasing portion of his support: the supply siders, the IRS haters, the fiscal conservatives. Forbes himself cannily used the proposal to forge a much stronger alloy out of the angry, disaffected core of Republicans and independents, of voters who hate politics, hate politicians, hate the media and hate political media most of all. In essence he has taken up the banner of the Perot rebellion, but with a more upscale, libertarian theme. “The flat tax is symbolic,” argues Brian Kennedy, state chairman of the Iowa G.O.P. “It’s not so much that they’re hooked into the proposal, as the end of the tax system. The way they see it, that’s special interests lobbying Senators and Washington to get loopholes. This is a rebellion against the status quo.”

Indeed, as Forbes’ support has grown, his susceptibility to attack has actually decreased, Dole officials say, because he is seen by voters as above the political fray. Internal campaign polls, which carefully measure how deep a candidate’s support actually is, find that Forbes is still climbing even as support for the flat tax erodes. Any tough challenge to his math is skillfully deflected as the product of Washington insiders with a vested interest in the current system. “You can’t look at [Forbes’] candidacy in conventional terms,” said Don Sipple, a Dole media adviser. “You have to look at it in more symbolic terms. A big part of his support is anti-Washington, antipolitical, sort of the anarchic wing of the Republican Party. Their support for Forbes is not about him. It’s about discontent and anger and frustration with the rest of the field and Washington.”

IOWAN BOB SHARP, A CAUCUS PRECINCT leader, worked 16 hours one day last week at the Union Pacific railroad so he could take a day off to go hear Forbes speak. “I’ve seen him on TV; now I wanted to meet him in person,” says Sharp. “He’s got some interesting ideas. I don’t know whether he can transform them into action. People are taking a hard look at him now. Someone in my precinct said he’s the Ross Perot within the Republican Party.”

On the stump, Forbes has been far more consistent and successful than Dole at keeping his message clear and upbeat and letting the faceless announcers in the TV commercials do the dirty work. On the record, off the record, on deep background, he and his aides recite their lines without wavering one word from the script.

If Forbes has managed to avoid any hand-to-hand combat, it may be because it’s a skill he has practiced all his life. As rivals and reporters dig through his biography and professional record, a pattern that emerges is a gift for conflict avoidance. Being rich, to start with, provides a lot of cushion. Forbes’ Princeton friend Chris Leach recalls the day in 1970 when he borrowed Forbes’ brand-new, bright orange Mercury Cougar XR-7 to make a pizza run–and totaled it. When Steve found out, Leach recalls, “he just looked at me and said, ‘Uh-huh.’ And he called his father, and his father came down from Far Hills, and they were really nice about it. First thing Malcolm asked me if I was O.K., and then he said, ‘What the hell, you can always get another Cougar. I never did like that orange.'”

Like many politicians and privileged sons of his era, Forbes avoided the major conflict of his generation, the Vietnam War, by enlisting in the National Guard. His idea of cultural rebellion was to decline to join one of Princeton’s exclusive eating clubs. As second-in-command at his family’s publishing empire, the Wall Street Journal reported last week, Forbes did not act on suggestions that his father, widely rumored to be bisexual, had propositioned male employees. When two squabbling secretaries did not want to work side by side in his outer office, his solution was to build a wall between them–not a partition, but a floor-to-ceiling wall. It became known around the company as Steve’s “Berlin Wall.”

Forbes also finds himself having to explain some gaps between words and deeds. An outsider campaigning against waste, fraud and abuse, Forbes was very forgiving of profligacy during his only government tour, when he served as the unpaid chairman of the Board for International Broadcasting, an independent government agency that oversaw the operations of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty from 1985 to ’93. Far from downsizing in his tiny corner of the government, his agency’s budget doubled during his tenure. Government audits considered it “improper” that under Forbes’ leadership, Eugene Pell, the president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, spent about $280,000 in taxpayer money redecorating his residence and nearly $2,000 a month on cleaning and gardening. Forbes called the spending “infinitesimal” over a seven-year period and said there were no extravagances.

Forbes also became a noisy promoter of building a $300 million radio transmitter in Israel’s Negev Desert. Warren Rudman, a budget hawk and former chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversaw Forbes’ agency (and a Dole supporter), praises Forbes as “full of energy,” but adds that “the Negev project was just a total failure, because Democrats and Republicans alike could see that there was no need for it. But Forbes just had no hesitancy in asking for huge amounts of money it would have cost. It was fairly typical behavior for a Washington insider fighting for his project–not the image of an outsider trying to save American taxpayers money.”

In a separate disclosure that may raise questions about Forbes’ mingling of journalism and moneymaking, the Washington Post reported last Saturday that Forbes had earned $176,000 in speaking fees during 1994 and the first half of 1995, mostly from colleges as well as from businesses that could conceivably be the subject of articles in his magazine. Among them: Toyota Motor and the brokerage firm A.G. Edwards. Asked last week whether the fees could pose a conflict of interest, Forbes told the Post: “It would take more than an honorarium. On the face of it, it’s silly.”

Finally, Forbes brings a puzzling indifference to the troubling track records of campaign operative Carter Wrenn and political adviser Tom Ellis. Although Forbes seems to have a history of racial tolerance (as an editor, according to the Wall Street Journal, he killed articles that condemned racial quotas and that suggested blacks were genetically inferior), Forbes has nonetheless brought into his organization these two veterans of Jesse Helms’ race-baiting campaigns. Wrenn was a top adviser with Helms’ 1990 Senate campaign who produced the notorious ad showing white hands crumpling a job-rejection letter while a voice explained that a minority applicant got the job even though the white applicant was more qualified. (Republican National Committee member Harry Singleton has sought Wrenn’s removal from the Forbes campaign because of his role in making the ad.) As for Ellis, he was director of the Pioneer Fund, which supported research into theories that blacks are genetically inferior. When TIME reported last December the involvement of Wrenn and Ellis in his campaign, Forbes defended them by saying, “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” Forbes downplayed their roles in the campaigns, describing Wrenn then as nothing more than the office administrator.

If Forbes were truly allergic to conflict, of course, he would not have inserted himself into the most bare-knuckled contest of all. If he were just a rich hypocrite trying to muscle a flat tax into law that would make him even richer than he is now, he’s spending much more to do it than he could ever hope to save. Which leaves the obvious motive for why he put himself through the discomfort and public disrobing of a race for the White House: he really wants to get there. Maybe just as much as Bob Dole always has.

–Reported by Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, Michael Duffy and Karen Tumulty/Washington

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