Forbes opens bid for the presidency Business giant, heir to fortune, seeks Republican nod

September 23, 1995|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- His late father liked to race hot-air balloons and squire Elizabeth Taylor aboard his 150-foot yacht, but Malcolm S. Forbes Jr. outdid his old man in self-promotion yesterday: He announced his candidacy for president of the United States.

A 48-year-old with an easy grin and a plodding speaking style, Mr. Forbes put in his bid for the Republican nomination with a speech at the National Press Club.

"If the insiders had the answers, they would have implemented them by now," said the novice candidate, who is known as Steve. He argued that the nation is ready for a real outsider in the White House, someone who can "remove the dead weight of Washington and let the American economy run free."

Mr. Forbes is a familiar behind-the-scenes figure in conservative political circles. But his entire career has been spent in business, president and editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine, a job he inherited -- along with his considerable personal fortune -- from his father.

"To say the least, this is an unusual candidacy, and I expect there are some skeptics in the room," he said, acknowledging the long-shot nature of his candidacy.

His remarks were applauded by several dozen friends and associates, including a smattering of former Reagan and Bush administration officials. It is not clear, however, who is supporting the Forbes candidacy, beyond the cadre of veteran political consultants and employees whom he is paying to staff his fledgling campaign.

The most familiar face in the crowd belonged to Caspar W. Weinberger, the former Reagan defense secretary. He, too, it turns out, is on Mr. Forbes' payroll (as the magazine's chairman). Questioned afterward, Mr. Weinberger declined to say whether he was backing Mr. Forbes' candidacy.

If Mr. Forbes starts out with little apparent political support, he does have at least one thing working in his favor -- what Sen. Phil Gramm has called the best friend a candidate can have: "Ready NTC money," and lots of it.

Mr. Forbes says he's prepared to invest a chunk of his family's fortune, which has been estimated at between $500 million and $1.3 billion, in his campaign. He's already airing TV commercials and, earlier this week, said he might spend $25 million (considerably less than the $65.5 million Ross Perot spent in 1992).

Yesterday, he said he would spend whatever is necessary get across his upbeat message of economic growth, which includes a smattering of ideas popularized by former Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp, such as a return to the gold standard. It was Mr. Kemp's failure to enter the 1996 race that led some of his advisers to push Mr. Forbes to run, an idea he considered for several months before deciding to go.

The central proposal of his campaign -- a flat-rate income tax of 17 percent -- has already been embraced to one degree or another by other Republican presidential candidates. But, unlike his rivals, Mr. Forbes insisted: "I mean it, and I'll do it. . . . The other candidates talk about changing the culture of Washington, but they are the culture of Washington."

Behind him as he spoke was a blue-and-white "Forbes for President" banner, printed in the same type style as in the nameplate of his family's famous business magazine. If, as some critics contend, his campaign is little more than a promotional stunt -- a nationwide free-advertising campaign for the Forbes name -- it is one his father would have been proud of.

Like his son, Malcolm Forbes Sr. was described by friends as a basically shy person. But he had a genius for splashy tax-deductible stunts to promote himself and his magazine -- such as the $2 million birthday bash he threw, six months before his death in 1990, for himself and 800 guests whom he flew to his Moroccan palace.

Already, Mr. Forbes' candidacy has received a surprising amount of attention, including a full-page story in Time magazine and a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal.

"Phil Gramm has never gotten a front-page story in the Journal," griped Gary Koops, campaign press secretary to the Texas senator who's been running hard for months and is second in the polls to Sen. Bob Dole.

Mr. Forbes' strategists insist that there's an opportunity for his candidacy to catch on.

"There's a window -- it's small, but there's an opportunity," said Marc Nuttle, an informal Forbes adviser who was a strategist in Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential campaign.

Many Republicans, Mr. Nuttle said, have been looking for an alternative to the current crop of candidates. "If Powell doesn't run," he said, "it could be Forbes."

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