Forbes' balloon bursts despite fireworks show

August 18, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

AMES, Iowa -- When multimillionaire publisher Steve Forbes took his turn to address the big Iowa Republican extravaganza here last weekend, his campaign set off fireworks -- real fireworks behind the platform -- and released a shower of red, white and balloons on the crowd below.

It was yet another demonstration of his dollars at work for him. But to his misfortune, something happened that his money could not prevent. It so happened that many of the balloons descended on the cheering section of rival candidate Pat Buchanan.

As Mr. Forbes launched into his speech, the Buchananites began popping the balloons, drowning out the hapless candidate, who lacked the common sense to stop speaking until all the balloons had been popped and he could be heard. As he droned on, snickers through the crowd added to the noise.

It was a rare case of Steve Forbes' wretched excess backfiring on him. He left the podium to the jarring explosion of more fireworks, wearing his usual look of oblivious self-satisfaction.

After all nine of the competing candidates had spoken, a long Forbes television biography came on the overhead screen in the hall -- something none of the other candidates, with the exception of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, could afford.

The performance was typical of the Forbes campaign. More than what he said in his formal speech, it was a reminder of how free this doctrinaire conservative is in spending money when it comes to pursuing his objective of the presidency.

Outside the auditorium where he spoke, attendees visiting the hospitality tents on the warm summer afternoon found a welcome haven in the Forbes tent. Alone of all the makeshift structures erected by the nine candidates competing in the day's straw poll, the Forbes tent was completely enclosed and air-conditioned. Inside, a state-of-the-art sound stage was ready to give the invited entertainers the best support money could buy.

Outside the Forbes cool tent, a kid's park was set up, complete with a large inflated moon bounce and slide, face-painting and a clown to hand out balloons. (There seemed to be no Buchanan supporters there to pop them).

During the lead-up to the Iowa straw poll, Mr. Forbes showed contempt for the voters of the state by peppering them with trinkets -- little silver and gold campaign pins -- and T-shirts listing the towns he visited on a campaign bus tour he took across the state, as if he were a rock star.

The bus tour itself was show biz. A loudspeaker on the lead bus blared the candidate's arrival with "The Stars and Stripes Forever", and as he shook hands, young aides unloaded the American and Iowa flags and set them up flanking him.

All this conspicuous spending is, to be sure, perfectly legal. But what it does is underscore the huge advantage Mr. Forbes has as a wealthy man willing to spend whatever it costs to make him a viable candidate.

Big spenders

Mr. Bush also spent a considerable amount on the straw poll, like Mr. Forbes chartering 100 more more buses to bring voters to Ames to cast straw ballots. But Mr. Bush does not toss his money around frivolously as if he has an unlimited supply; he spends plenty, but in running a smooth operation without fireworks.

Both Candidates Forbes and Bush have a great advantage over the other Republican contenders beyond the sheer money. They have elected to reject the campaign subsidy available to them under the federal campaign finance law, a step that frees them of spending limits imposed by that law. The other candidates have a limit imposed in taking the federal money -- a ceiling of $1.1 million in Iowa. But for Mr. Bush and Mr. Forbes, the sky's the limit.

Neither of them flinches at the charge that they are buying the Republican nomination. At least the Bush money comes from the contributions of others -- 63,000 of them according to his campaign. Also, he is a twice-elected governor of one of the nation's largest states.

But Mr. Forbes' main credential is his checkbook, buying him a ticket into the competition. You'd think he'd spend it a little less conspicuously on gimmicks.

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

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