Arizona provided ready audience for Forbes Question is whether his appeal will travel

Campaign 1996

February 29, 1996|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PHOENIX -- The critical question emerging from Steve Forbes' surprising victory over Sen. Bob Dole and Patrick J. Buchanan in the Arizona primary is whether unique circumstances here delivered the upset, or whether the elements that produced it can be replicated in other states.

The answer is that Arizona was unique, but some aspects of Mr. Forbes' appeal could travel well.

Arizona, with its many comfortable-to-well-off retirees, was a ready audience for his pitch for a flat tax, which would end taxes on the interest and dividend income on which many of them live.

"The flat tax would be a huge change, and Arizonans are not like people in Iowa and New Hampshire," said Bert Coleman, Mr. Forbes' state campaign manager in Phoenix. "They are individualists who came from somewhere else. They like bold new ideas."

But questionable actions by Mr. Dole and Mr. Buchanan may have contributed to Mr. Forbes' success. Mr. Dole, against the advice of his local aides, skipped the only statewide televised debate. And he was in the state for only parts of two days in low-voter-intensive events.

"Bob didn't spend as much time in Arizona as perhaps he should have," observed Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Dole backer.

Mr. Dole's endorsement strategy, which included a high-visibility visit to Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee, seemed to reinforce the perception that his ties are to the past.

As for Mr. Buchanan, his travels through the state, waving a shotgun at a gun show, and talking tough about sealing off the border and making English the official language apparently turned off many Republicans. In exit polls by Voter News Service, 55 percent said they thought he was "too extreme."

According to exit polls, taxes was the issue that most influenced voters. Twenty-five percent mentioned it. Sixty percent of all voters surveyed favor a flat tax, compared with 37 percent who prefer the current graduated tax.

But other issues boosted the multimillionaire publisher, too. Sixty-two percent of voters, according to exit polls, saw him as the most "visionary" candidate; only 9 percent thought so of Mr. Dole. Of those who said being a Washington outsider was most important, Mr. Forbes received 84 percent. Both qualities could appeal to voters in other states.

Both Mr. Dole and Mr. Buchanan attributed Mr. Forbes' victory to the millions of dollars of his own that he poured into Arizona.

Mr. Forbes blanketed the airwaves of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and is home to two-thirds of the state's registered Republicans. He hammered at Mr. Dole for weeks as a tax-raiser until negative reactions to the same ads in Iowa persuaded his strategists to pull them off the air everywhere.

But by then, the ads had apparently done their damage. Exit polls found that about one-third of voters had made up their minds early in the year, when Mr. Forbes was pounding Mr. Dole hardest.

One factor in Arizona that won't be available to him in other states: a procedure whereby voters may request early ballots to be mailed in any time before the election. Mr. Forbes' state chairwoman, Susan Marler, called this "our ace in the hole." Many voters who used this method mailed in votes while Mr. Forbes was still airing negative ads against Mr. Dole.

In riding his flat-tax proposal to victory in Arizona, Mr. Forbes guarantees he will face another round of attacks from his rivals.

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