Forbes the man still an unknown Evasive:As the multimillionare and flat tax advocate moves up in the polls, voters trying to learn more about his character find he has little to say.

February 04, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

AVOCA, Iowa -- The presidential candidate, wearing a gray corporate suit and a smile as flush as his bank account, extends his hand across a Formica table -- across worlds, really -- to introduce himself to the Iowa farmer with the denim overalls and the red bandanna around his neck.

"Wow," says the 61-year-old farmer, Jim Kardell, who knows only that the preppy man who just popped into the coffee shop wants to be president, promotes a "flat tax" and is wildly rich.

"Who'd ever think I'd meet Steve . . . what's your name, again?"

Even as he surges ahead in the polls in New Hampshire, where he has so far become the surprise phenomenon of the 1996 campaign, and even as he becomes a hot property, rolling on a bus through frozen-tundra-like Iowa, the multimillionaire-publisher- turned-Republican-presidential hopeful Steve Forbes is still something of an unknown, and a curiosity, to voters.

Conversations with Iowans sug-gest that despite his high poll numbers, Mr. Forbes has yet to ignite the sort of passionate loyalty that might give him a real shot at the nomination.

"About all we're getting from him right now is the flat tax," says Rosann Nauman, who is leaning toward voting for Mr. Forbes in the Iowa caucuses Feb 12.

"We need to know more about his character -- if he stands for one thing and won't waver. Being honest -- that's what I'm looking for."

What she knows and likes -- in fact, what is leading most Forbes enthusiasts to favor the stiff, somewhat dweebish businessman, who is financing his campaign with his own gold-plated checkbook -- is that he is not a politician.

He is not a Washington insider, not another of the promise-making pack.

"I think we need a change, and I think he's the changer," said Earl Rogers of Earlham.

But the lack of political experience, and thus the lack of familiarity to voters, cuts both ways. It leaves the 48-year-old magazine-publishing magnate and supply-side advocate with lots of blanks to fill in.

As Mr. Forbes zips around this rural state with his Reaganesque message of "hope, growth and opportunity," supplementing his TV ad blitz with traditional stops at coffee shops and city halls, he is trying to supply a fuller picture of the leader he would be.

"You have to take the sum of one's lifetime, and there's more to that than simply a political resume," he says in an interview aboard his bus. "The presidency is ultimately about vision, giving voice and direction to that vision."

Still, while he talks easily about his economic vision, he seems to have a harder time projecting a full-bodied self-portrait. For one thing, he is not a natural campaigner.

Though more relaxed and politically attuned than when he began on the campaign trail -- when aides had to remind him to shake hands with people before heading for the door -- he still looks sheepish when he wades into a crowd for the grip and grin.

When a man at a retirement home introduced himself, saying he was 92 years old, the candidate replied simply, "Wow."

Mr. Forbes' speeches, recited in a slightly robotic manner, are peppered with words like "moreover." To try to connect with the average citizen, he is riding in a campaign bus, outfitted with tables and couches and stocked with doughnuts, popcorn and Sprite.

It's his first time on a bus in 20 years, he concedes. Worth an estimated $440 million, the inheritor of the Forbes publishing company and eldest son of the late Malcolm Forbes Sr. is used to tooling around on the family's Boeing 727 (the Capitalist Tool) or yacht (the Highlander).

Although his smile is friendly, he is evasive about his personal wealth and rarefied background. He declines to release his income-tax returns and tells a reporter who asks about his income, "You can look it up with the FEC [Federal Election Commission]."

A Princeton graduate who went straight to work for the family business and is now president and CEO of Forbes Inc., he seems hard-pressed to mention any character-building experiences or dealings with adversity or crises.

"There have been a series of challenges," he says. "One of the most exciting has been in the 25 years [of traveling the country as a reporter and then publisher] seeing how the American people deal with challenges, how they move ahead with their lives."

Pressed for something from his own life, he says he struggled to emerge from the shadow of his famous father and had to grapple with taking over the family magazine. "Showing that I wasn't going to be overwhelmed by a well-known father or grandfather, moving ahead there, taking on more responsibility," Mr. Forbes says. "I think that's what people are looking for: true grit."

He seems to bristle at the tough personal questions that come at him more frequently now as he moves up in the polls. Asked whether he had joined the New Jersey National Guard in 1970 to avoid service in Vietnam, he says: "The National Guard was an honorable way of serving one's military obligation. I served in it six years. Proud to have done it."

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