With deep pockets, Forbes is in to stay

August 11, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The conventional wisdom of the moment is that the Iowa straw poll on Saturday will be curtains for some of the Republicans competing for the party's presidential nomination. If they do poorly, the argument goes, they will have to quit because they won't be able to raise the money to continue.

But that bit of political logic doesn't apply, of course, to Steve Forbes. He is financing his own campaign and doesn't need the good opinion of others to continue.

Indeed, it is fair to say that the Forbes campaign demonstrates more starkly than any other the bizarre and pernicious role that money has come to represent in U.S. politics. If you have the money to buy some television advertising, you're a player.

Here is a man who spent more than $35 million of his own money in the 1996 campaign and threatens to exceed that this time around. He is already running television commercials in Iowa, and he has been hiring professional political operatives by the gross.

Political positioning

Trying to juxtapose himself with Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, Mr. Forbes depicts the campaign as a contest between a favorite of the "establishment" and an "independent outsider." But that isn't quite the proper distinction.

It is true that Mr. Bush is a son of a former president and the clear favorite of the GOP establishment, as evidenced by the fact that he has won so many endorsements from key party figures and by the fact that he has raised a staggering $37 million.

But Mr. Bush also has won two elections in a huge state and demonstrated some ability to cut across the traditional political lines. So one of the things he brings to the GOP establishment is the realistic hope of winning back the White House. There is no evidence in the current opinion polls to suggest that Mr. Forbes has the same promise.

The term "independent outsider" is not the first that comes to mind when Mr. Forbes is mentioned, however. It might just as easily be "fat cat" or "rich guy" or "heir to magazine fortune" -- or, for that matter, "some guy trying to buy the presidency."

Taxing issue

Four years ago, Mr. Forbes enjoyed a brief vogue when he first surfaced with his proposal for a simplified flat tax. The idea of filing your income taxes by "filling out a post card and mailing it in" had an enormous appeal. So did the notion of abolishing the tax code with all its convoluted preferences and penalties.

But then it began to appear that this was the only thing Mr. Forbes was advocating and that it might not be that easy to achieve. As the second thoughts grew more prevalent among New Hampshire Republicans, support for Mr. Forbes seemed to stall.

This time around Mr. Forbes talks about many more issues, including some of the social questions he seemed to avoid four years ago. But his sudden concern for the abortion rights question would be called positioning, if one of those terrible politicos did it.

The question that naturally arises out of all this is why the press and the other politicians continue to pay so much attention to Mr. Forbes, if all he has to offer is a personal fortune.

And the answer is, of course, that personal fortune. With millions upon millions to spend, Mr. Forbes can keep himself in the primary field as long as his ego requires. He is not going to be sent home because he loses some straw vote or, for that matter, the precinct caucuses in Iowa and primary in New Hampshire six months from now.

He may not be able to compete effectively with Mr. Bush, but he can compete indefinitely if he chooses to do so. He went on running well into the spring last time around.

More to the point, Mr. Forbes has the potential to influence the outcome by trashing the other candidates, as he did with a heavy television buy against the front-running Bob Dole in New Hampshire in 1996.

Mr. Forbes is not the first wealthy man to enter politics at the highest level. Ross Perot did it seven years ago, the difference being that he made rather than inherited his fortune. It happens all the time at lower levels. There are several current U.S. senators won their seats by spending their personal fortunes.

But by the time other wealthy men focused on the White House most of them -- such as John F. Kennedy and Nelson A. Rockefeller -- had some experience in public life. Their bankbooks were not their only credential.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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