Forbes' deep pockets test power of money in Iowa Limits on spending don't apply to rich

Campaign 1996

February 07, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DES MOINES, Iowa -- When Steve Forbes and his troops descended on Iowa in mid-December, they had no county organizers, no precinct leadership, no phone banks.

He had none of what has always been considered the key to success in this caucus state and what the leading GOP presidential candidates already had already fashioned -- grass-roots organizations. Instead, what self-financing Mr. Forbes had was money, and the willingness to spend it so lavishly on TV advertising that a local station was dubbed "the Forbes channel."

In Monday's Iowa's caucuses, the nation is about to see if Mr. Forbes' free-spending candidacy has changed the rules of political engagement along the primary trail.

"Clearly, Forbes is trying to do what no one else has ever been able to do," says David Oman, a former state GOP co-chairman. "Come in over the top and make such a splash with television that people will be motivated whether or not they've been identified, sought after, cajoled, or persuaded to go to their precinct caucuses."

For his part, Mr. Forbes -- worth an estimated $440 million -- dismisses charges from his opponents and other critics that he is trying to buy the election.

"The American people are not for sale," he says repeatedly. But he also says he will spend whatever it takes to get his message to voters.

Although he has scurried to piece together the semblance of a grass-roots network here in recent weeks -- putting out eight pieces of direct mail and 4,000 calls a day through a professional phone bank -- Mr. Forbes has relied largely on paid TV advertising, spending at least four times more than the other candidates, who must comply with spending limits because they receive federal matching funds.

"There is no way we can keep up with him on the airwaves," says Howard Opinsky, a spokesman for Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. "We have limits by law. He doesn't."

In the last three months of 1995, Mr. Forbes spent $14 million, according to Federal Election Commission records, compared to the $8.4 million in the same period by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and $5.4 million by Mr. Gramm, both of whom have to use some of their funds to raise money.

Of the $18 million Mr. Forbes spent between the start of his campaign in late September and the end of 1995, $12.5 million went to TV and radio ads. That compares with the $1 million to $2 million spent by the most well-heeled of the other candidates, including Mr. Dole.

In a recent one-week period, for instance, Mr. Forbes had 516 spots on Boston-area TV stations, followed by Mr. Dole with 71, the Associated Press reported.

Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, says the Forbes campaign illustrates "how broken the American political process is, how the American people are now given two choices: candidates who raise money from the rich and interested, and candidates who are the rich and interested. Those are the only two ways to be president today."

Clearly, Mr. Forbes' millions have rocked his Republican opponents back on their heels, especially in Iowa where candidates like Mr. Gramm have spent the last year and a half building a statewide network of volunteers and organizers only to see it overshadowed by a TV campaign.

"I don't think anybody knows what television and radio and mailing at the level they're being used will do," Mr. Gramm said yesterday. "I personally believe in the end it's going to fail."

Presidential contender Lamar Alexander, campaigning here yesterday, said he was concerned about what he called the "obscene amount of money" being spent by Mr. Forbes on paid media. "I think Iowans are wise enough not to let Mr. Forbes turn the caucus into an auction," he said.

In Iowa, more than just about anywhere else, politics has been about grass-roots, barber shop and coffee shop campaigning more than TV commercials.

"We really haven't seen anything like this before," says state GOP chairman Brian Kennedy. "We have never had a campaign that emphasized television as much as what we've had this year."

Historically, Iowa has put a premium on organization "because you're asking people to do something they're not used to doing," says Mr. Kennedy.

For the caucuses, voters must show up at exactly 7 p.m. and sit through what can be a one-to-three-hour party meeting with speeches and discussions. Because it is hard to get people to attend caucuses, candidates try to gain the support of leaders in as many of the state's 99 counties and 2,142 precincts as possible. It then becomes their job to harangue the candidate's voters into showing up on caucus night.

While Mr. Dole and Mr. Gramm have campaign chairmen in all 99 counties and most of the precincts, Mr. Forbes has coordinators in only 45 counties and 1,000 precincts.

"In six to eight weeks we have tried to completely create what Bob Dole has done in 10 years and what Phil Gramm had done in a year and a half," says Chip Carter, director of organization for Mr. Forbes. But he says that what the campaign lacks in organization, it is making up for in enthusiasm and momentum.

Iowa's politicos are waiting to see. They point to numerous examples of instances in which organization translated into success for candidates -- George Bush in 1980, Bob Dole in 1988. And they point to John B. Connally who, like Mr. Forbes, poured money into TV ads in 1980 to make up for his lack of grass-roots organizing -- to no avail.

But this year, in the face of so many millions and so many ads, all bets seem to be off.

"People in the future will look back on this as a textbook example of whether ads and money can turn out caucus-goers," says Rod Blum, the GOP Dubuque county chairman. "We'll find out in a week."

Paul West of The Sun staff contributed to this article.

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