Forbes slips after fast start Flat finish: Steve Forbes finished fourth, far below expectations after looking like a possible front-runner. Undeterred, he says he will continue campaigning.

Campaign 1996

February 13, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

AMES, IOWA — DES MOINES, Iowa -- The millions of dollars that publishing magnate Steve Forbes dished out in his pursuit of the GOP presidential nomination transformed the race here. But they failed to bring him even close to the top prize at last night's caucuses.

Falling far below expectations in the first real test of his strength as a presidential candidate, Mr. Forbes, who had made a splash here in recent weeks, won only 10 percent of the vote. He placed fourth behind Sen. Bob Dole, commentator Pat Buchanan and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander.

Despite the poor showing, Mr. Forbes said he was "not at all" disappointed.

"We made a good start here," he told the crowd at his post-caucus party to shouts of "Forbes." He said his campaign was waged "under the most difficult of odds," since he started his campaign only several months ago.

"My opponents had been working in Iowa two years, three years, even 30 years," he said in a dig at veteran politician Mr. Dole. "Eighteen weeks ago I was only an asterisk, but in 18 weeks we have made remarkable progress."

Mr. Forbes, with his wife, Sabina, by his side, vowed to go on to New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first presidential primary next Tuesday, "with new determination and excitement."

He has been expected to do extremely well in New Hampshire, a tax-averse state where his flat tax proposal holds much appeal. But his fourth-place showing last night raised questions about whether his campaign had peaked and would have difficulty regaining momentum.

At last night's party in a Marriott ballroom, where the Al Ford Orchestra played "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart" and supporters nibbled on meatballs and chicken wings, some tried to put the best face on the results.

"Coming in fourth is pretty good considering he only started in November," said Ty Borders, 25, of Des Moines. "I'm from Kansas. Bob Dole has been running my whole life."

But others couldn't mask their disappointment. Kevin McLaughlin, the Forbes chairman in Polk County, said, "You're always disappointed when you see great poll numbers."

Indeed, spending at least four times what his opponents spent on TV and radio ads here, the once obscure candidate catapulted straight to the top rungs of the race in recent weeks. His message of "hope, growth and opportunity," his congenial nature, and even his smiling awkwardness on the campaign trail seemed to appeal to voters' desire for a nonpolitician, a Washington outsider.

As of a week ago, the expectations for Mr. Forbes' free-spending campaign were soaring, with polls -- and enthusiastic crowds -- suggesting he might even threaten Mr. Dole's front-runner status.

But expectations seemed to diminish day by day over the last week. Mr. Forbes barrage of ads disparaging opponents not only irritated voters but provoked an aggressive counterattack by Mr. Dole who launched his own blizzard of anti-Forbes ads.

Mr. Forbes ran into trouble, too, with religious conservatives who were not satisfied with his stand on social issues, especially abortion, and with what seemed like his disregard for the Christian Coalition.

Last night, he said the Christian conservative vote was a "major factor" in the outcome, and insisted that the movement's leadership misrepresented his position on abortion. Although he has said he is "anti-abortion," he does not believe abortions should be banned until the majority of the public supports that. He said that he had been under "relentless attack" in recent days from "pressure groups" and the media.

Since grass-roots campaigning and organizing has always been considered the key to success in this state, Mr. Forbes' heavy reliance on TV and radio advertising threatened to transform political practices here. But his failure to score big last night confirmed for Iowans the importance of feet-in-the-street campaigning.

"There's a lot to be learned from these results," said Bob Snover, a Forbes organizer in Des Moines. "Money doesn't necessarily buy votes, but the grass-roots effort wins every time."

The candidate spent the final hours of his Iowa blitz campaigning along the downtown skywalk yesterday. Dropping in on a small school, he sat before about 75 youngsters and, with more gusto and animation than he usually exhibits, read "The Little Engine That Could" -- a not so subtle comment on his upstart campaign. "I think I can, I think I can," he read.

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