The Forbes millions create 'an electronic drive-by shooting' in New Hampshire

January 31, 1996|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

SOMERSWORTH, N.H. -- Multimillionaire presidential candidate Steve Forbes got a good laugh from the local Rotary Club here the other noontime when he told the members that their invitation to him disproved the old axiom ''that there's no such thing as a free lunch.''

Mr. Forbes may be eating on the cuff as he attends breakfasts, lunches and dinners. But there's little else that's free to him as he pumps millions of his inherited fortune into his campaign for television ads unfettered by the limitations faced by the other eight Republican candidates.

In choosing to pass up the federal campaign subsidy available to all qualified candidates and accepted by all the others, Mr. Forbes is free of the spending limits imposed on them as a condition of getting the federal money. So he has the advantage not only of not having to raise campaign funds, a severe drain on the time and energies of the other candidates, but also the freedom to inundate the airwaves with an unprecedented barrage of advertising.

Almost comically, nevertheless, Mr. Forbes has sent out a fund-raising letter calling on a ''select group . . . of my closest campaign supporters -- individuals I can rely on and turn to on tough decisions'' to join a ''Founders Trust'' at a mere $1,000 a clip. He may feel this gesture will counter the obvious charge that he's trying to buy the presidency with his own money.

It is almost literally impossible in New Hampshire in these days leading up to the state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary February 20 to watch 15 minutes of television without confronting a Forbes commercial, especially if you're a channel surfer. Bill Dal Col, the national campaign manager, has reported that the campaign had already spent $15 million of Mr. Forbes' cash by the end of December, mostly here and in Iowa for the February 12 caucuses there.

The avalanche of Forbes ads, in addition to lifting him to second place behind only Sen. Bob Dole in most polls here -- even putting him ahead in one -- drives managers of the rival campaigns crazy. Mr. Forbes' ability to sandwich their commercials with ads of his own, is reducing them to fighting a cannon with pea-shooters

Beyond that, veteran politicians here say New Hampshire's long tradition of retail campaigning -- candidates going town to town and even door to door seeking out voters -- is being imperiled.

The cost to New Hampshire

Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander complains that if Mr. Forbes' heavy spending works, it won't matter anymore that New Hampshire has the first primary. His point is that New Hampshire, and Iowa, traditionally have attracted presidential hopefuls, even those with little money, because they have had a chance in these two smaller states to get their message out on low budgets, simply by knocking on doors.

Mr. Forbes' campaign is so flush that even as it has been flooding local television and radio with commercials attacking his leading rivals, Senators Dole and Phil Gramm, it has begun running ads as well against Mr. Alexander, who is a lowly fourth or fifth in the polls.

The Forbes bankroll also enabled its owner to run expensive ads nationally before and after President Clinton's State of the Union speech last week. ''The sheer tonnage of his television buys overwhelms specific events,'' says Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire strategist now in the Alexander campaign. When his candidate addressed the state legislature in Concord the other day, Mr. Rath expressed concern that Forbes ads would smother that, too.

Mr. Forbes is not the first wealthy man to pour a large chunk of his fortune into a presidential campaign. Texas billionaire Ross Perot did so in 1992, but Mr. Rath points out that the Texan did not target into a few individual states to blanket their airwaves, as Mr. Forbes is now doing in New Hampshire and Iowa.

As a result, he says, the Forbes campaign not only has an unparalleled money advantage in television buys but the others are frozen by the limits imposed on them as the price they pay to get the federal subsidy. ''This is an electronic drive-by shooting,'' Mr. Rath laments.

There is little evidence yet that voters are taking a negative view of Mr. Forbes throwing his wealth around. He has an almost shy and diffident manner that belies his bold effort. But his opponents are pounding hard at him on the money issue, and it's too early to conclude it won't yet damage his chances.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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