'Kid Chutzpah,' cloaked in green, says it's his message that's winning

March 01, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

PHOENIX -- In his victory speech here the other night, Steve Forbes in his brand of graciousness attacked his opponents for using taxpayers' money to run for president. He was the only true independent, he boasted, because he wasn't taking a cent from Uncle Sam and was getting all his campaign money out of his own pocket, plus some from friends -- what he no doubt would consider pocket change.

Although it's only the beginning of March, Mr. Forbes has already retired the chutzpah award for the year, hands down. While he ruthlessly skewers one of the nation's most cherished and important exercises in democracy by smothering it with his inherited wealth, he blasts his opponents for participating in a legal arrangement established by federal campaign-finance law to reduce the influence of money.

All the candidates except Mr. Forbes have qualified to receive a dollar-for-dollar matching subsidy financed by the voluntary $3 checkoff on all Americans' federal income-tax returns. The price for getting the subsidy is an agreement to abide by limits on spending and on how much the candidate can accept from any %% individual -- set in the law that was the direct outgrowth of the excesses of the Watergate affair.

While the Chutzpah Kid probably would say he turned down the subsidy because of high principle -- that taxpayers shouldn't be underwriting candidates for president -- the obvious reason is that by doing so he is free to ''raise'' and spend all the money he wants, which is not hard to do when you're worth multimillions, and more millions keep coming into your pocket as millions go out.

The logical conclusion to be drawn from Mr. Forbes' attack on the candidates taking the federal subsidy is that any mother's child can grow up to be president -- as long as he or she is rich.

Most candidates have to win early or their money soon dries up and they are obliged to drop out. All Mr. Forbes' poor finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire did was require him to get his checkbook out again.

As Ronald Reagan drove the Soviet Union into bankruptcy by engaging it in an arms race it couldn't afford, Mr. Forbes with his free spending has put his Republican foes on the doorstep of the poorhouse trying to remain competitive with him.

By launching a television blitzkrieg of negative ads against the other candidates starting last fall, he lured them into spending their own limited campaign treasuries to defend themselves and, eventually, to retaliate. In the process, Mr. Forbes has been largely responsible for polluting the political climate as never before in the television age.

Punished by the voters

The political damage done to his opponents, not to mention to the election process, got so bad that Iowa's voters finally punished him for it, obliterating his early lead in the polls and reducing him to an also-ran. Only then did he take the negative ads off the air, admitting he had made a ''mistake.'' But by that time his main target, Bob Dole, had been thoroughly smeared by inaccurate and distorted allegations about his record.

Mr. Forbes had so much money to burn that in New Hampshire he took to running negative ads against former Gov. Lamar Alexander, who at the time was barely registering on the public-recognition scale and seemed no threat to him. For his pains, Mr. Forbes eventually ran behind Mr. Alexander in New Hampshire.

As long as Mr. Forbes appeared to be sliding into oblivion, it seemed that Americans had little cause to worry about a rich candidate buying the nomination. But in the wake of his victory in Arizona, where he again carpet-bombed the opposition with television ads, Mr. Forbes' spending -- seriously tilting the playing field in his own favor -- is no laughing matter.

said here the other night that he won because his message of ''hope, growth and opportunity'' finally got through. If that message is so persuasive, he ought to be willing to stand on it from now on, and put a ceiling on his own spending to permit a relatively level playing field with the others.

But Steve Forbes clearly isn't interested in a level field. He bought into the game with the fattest bankroll of all the players, and if he can drive others away from the table by using it, that's clearly what he intends to do.

Amazingly, most voters don't seem concerned that Mr. Forbes is using his great wealth to tilt the political process in his favor. After all, what's the good of being rich if you can't buy anything you want?

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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