Forbes not first with deep pockets Candidates who owe nothing to public may be unresponsive

Campaign 1996

February 18, 1996|By SCOTT WILSON

A political novice comes to town, preaching change and rampant wealth by tax cut. He carries a thick billfold earned in Arcadia - the private sector - and peels off millions for ugly ads attacking the character and culture of his competition. The people like it - a maverick with a message.

For a while, anyway.

The script fits Steve Forbes, whose self-financed run for the Republican presidential nomination is raising hopes and hackles. While he is seen as a private-sector savior by some, the press and his opponents ridicule him as cartoonish - "Richie Rich" on a lark.

The publishing heir finished fourth in last week's Iowa caucuses, where muscular organizations more than money push voters to the tedious meetings.

New Hampshire's Tuesday primary is more suited to an airwave campaign, and polls show Mr. Forbes contending.

But before Mr. Forbes came Michael Huffington, another famous father's son with political ambition and a flush bank account. In many ways, Mr. Huffington wrote the script two years ago during his failed bid for the U.S. Senate that Mr. Forbes reads from today.

If Mr. Huffington is any model, Mr. Forbes's lavish spending itself may enhance his stature. It is what the money buys that's politically dangerous - not only for the candidate but for democracy.

In 1994, Mr. Huffington challenged incumbent U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, then California's most popular elected Democrat. Thirty points down in early spring, the self-described political maverick spent a record $28 million of his own money on a blistering ad campaign portraying Ms. Feinstein as a big-spending Washington liberal. Mr. Forbes, who has spent more than $18 million to date, has had similar things to say about Bob Dole.

Mr. Huffington lost by less than 2 points. And many believe he would have won had it not been for the 11th-hour disclosure that he'd once hired an undocumented nanny to care for his kids.

Cracking down on illegal immigration was a central campaign plank.

Ms. Feinstein, in her defense, accused Mr. Huffington of "buying the election." It's the same argument Mr. Forbes's detractors are making today and with the same mixed results.

"If someone comes in with unlimited funds and no restrictions on spending," California Gov. Pete Wilson, a Dole supporter, told the Washington Post, "that fact alone would generate a negative reaction."

Mr. Wilson knows better. And, in Ms. Feinstein's case, the "he's buying the election" complaint sounded precariously close to whining.

Many California voters, displaced by new realities of the post-Cold War economy, had come to see their pay stubs as little more than receipts from Washington tax collectors. Conservatives and the financially uncertain admired Mr. Huffington's independence and his stump mantra: "I can't be bought." Besides, they weren't getting hit up with dinner-time phone calls from the self-financed campaign.

Mr. Huffington came across as a guy who'd made it, and cared enough to use it in order to clean up Washington. The American mood has changed little in the past year.

"He's spending his own money and not someone else's," John Phillips, a contractor in La Verne, Calif., said in the fall of 1994. "And believe me, I'm in favor of that."

Mr. Forbes, with ads attacking Mr. Dole for using federal-election money on his campaign, is making the same statement. And Mr. Huffington is defending him.

"Apparently their attitude is, give us your money but leave politics to us professionals," Mr. Huffington wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times.

"If Republican candidates truly find wealth so offensive, they should return every check they have collected from wealthy contributors, forgo every plane ride proffered aboard a corporate jet and turn every $1,000-a-pop private reception into a barbecue rally for all."

In many ways, Mr. Forbes is a national echo of Mr. Huffington. Both men are heirs to huge family fortunes - Mr. Forbes to the eponymous publishing empire created by his flamboyant father, Mr. Huffington to oil-and-gas millions made by his dad.

Roy M. Huffington is a legendary oil wildcatter, whose natural gas strike off Indonesia in the 1970s put him high on the Forbes 500 as well as into the pantheon of Texas tall tales. Later, he became U.S. ambassador to Austria.

The Houston company he created, Huffco, was sold in the late 1980s and provided Michael with an estimated $70 million to invest in his political career. He stands to inherit $700 million more.

Both men, in contrast to their fathers, are short on charisma. Without it, the void is filled by talk of their inherited wealth - rich boys staked by dad. Ross Perot's front-porch wisdom helped take the edge off his spending in 1992. Indeed, he had made his money himself.

Yet it's not the spending that ultimately undermined Mr. Huffington, but the products he was buying.

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