Forbes pulling out of race

Bush is expected to pick up tax-cut, anti-abortion vote

Formal withdrawal today

Texan is upbeat about facing McCain in S.C. primary

February 10, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEWBERRY, S.C. -- Steve Forbes withdrew yesterday from the presidential race, a move that is likely to improve Gov. George W. Bush's chances heading into next week's Republican showdown in South Carolina against Sen. John McCain.

Forbes, who has spent more than $66 million of his fortune on his presidential ambitions, is to formally announce his pullout today at a Capitol Hill news conference. The move follows his disappointing third-place finishes in the New Hampshire and Delaware primaries.

The Forbes decision helped give Bush his best 24 hours in the campaign since he won the Iowa caucuses last month. Bush picked up all of Delaware's delegates by winning Tuesday's primary. Then, a few hours later, he learned that Forbes was leaving the race.

Exit polls in earlier primaries found that Forbes had been cutting into Bush's support among the party's most conservative voters. Forbes' withdrawal is likely to help Bush consolidate his support among voters who consider cutting taxes the nation's top economic priority.

Bush leads McCain by a large margin among those voters, but Forbes' flat-tax message also made him popular among economic conservatives.

The absence of Forbes also could give Bush the edge among voters for whom opposition to abortion is the dominant issue. Some anti-abortion activists had been attracted to Forbes' campaign.

McCain has an anti-abortion voting record, but he is being attacked in campaign ads here by anti-abortion groups who regard his proposals for campaign-finance reform a threat to their ability to raise and spend money in political races.

Fighting to regain the upper hand in the Republican contest after losing badly to McCain in New Hampshire, the Texas governor appeared to be in an upbeat, confident mood yesterday.

"Clearly, in the race now, I'm the conservative candidate vs. McCain," Bush said in Newberry. "I think I'll have a good chance to pick up a lot of Forbes' support."

McCain, at a campaign stop in South Carolina, said he has no plans to seek Forbes' endorsement.

"He had a good idea on the flat tax but let it go," the Arizona senator said, referring to Forbes' decision to dilute his tax theme with a strong anti-abortion message in his second presidential try.

Taking the wealthy publisher out of the Republican equation will make it easier for McCain to focus voter attention on his challenge to Bush, said John Weaver, McCain's political director.

"We want a one-on-one shot at George Bush," Weaver said.

The McCain campaign had hoped that Bush would face a tougher challenge from the right. The Forbes withdrawal also helps Bush, acknowledged a McCain aide, because Bush will no longer have to endure a barrage of negative ads from Forbes.

Forbes had been on the air in South Carolina, which will hold its primary Feb. 19, with a heavy TV and radio campaign against the Texas governor.

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who is not involved in the presidential race, said Bush will get "a modest boost" from Forbes' leaving the race. Ayres noted that Forbes had been receiving support from less than 10 percent of likely Republican primary voters in the most recent South Carolina polls.

Forbes aides said he was unlikely to make an immediate endorsement in the presidential race.

The three surviving Republican candidates -- Bush, McCain and Alan L. Keyes -- are to meet Tuesday night in a 90-minute televised debate in South Carolina.

Forbes had dropped to last place in the latest national polls. The most recent Gallup/USA Today/CNN survey found Keyes with 3 percent and Forbes with 2 percent.

Bush continues to lead nationwide among Republicans. But in South Carolina and in Michigan, which will hold its primary Feb. 22, the Bush-McCain matchup is a virtual dead heat in polls.

Forbes reported spending $33.5 million on his latest campaign through Dec. 31, most of it his own money. By some accounts, he has poured more than $90 million of his estimated $440 million net worth into his personal political activities over the past six years.

A Princeton graduate and publisher of the business magazine that bears his family's name, Forbes had hoped to establish himself as the leading choice of conservatives in this year's race. He spent lavishly on campaign staff and advertising, and, with the help of Iowa's social conservatives, he finished second in the Republican caucuses there last month.

But his lack of experience in elective office and quirky personal style made it difficult for him to catch on as a presidential contender. His best showing was in 1996, when he won primaries in Delaware and Arizona.

He leaves the race with 10 convention delegates, according to the latest count by the Associated Press. It takes 1,034 delegates to win the nomination.

Sun staff writer Jules Witcover contributed to this article.

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