Forbes Leaves '96 Race And a Flat-Tax Legacy

WHAT $25 MILLION BOUGHT

REPUBLICAN presidential candidate Steve Forbes always said you can't buy the presidency.

He was right.

His withdrawal from the race Thursday underscores both the benefits and limitations of self-financed outsider candidacies.

As a maverick outside the party establishment, Mr. Forbes was never able to break through and seriously challenge Sen. Bob Dole for the nomination.

But his flat-tax idea has become a household word in America, and, with his name well-established, the publishing magnate could be back to run for governor or another post in the future.

''His candidacy shows outsiders continue to operate with a limit on how far they can go,'' says Andrew Busch, a professor of political science at the University of Denver. Forbes follows in the footsteps of Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who also ran an unsuccessful presidential campaign against the political establishment.

Because he funded his own campaign, Forbes was not limited in how much he could spend. The press has estimated he spent $25 million to $30 million, or about $350,000 to $420,000 per delegate. The Forbes campaign would not confirm that number.

Forbes's wealth, while it enabled him to buy mass-media advertising time, also worked against him. His unwillingness to reveal his income taxes led to cynicism about his flat-tax proposal. Some voters perceived him as another rich man trying to buy his way into office.

Although Forbes has decided to drop out, some analysts hailed his short candidacy. ''He would have to be judged a winner,'' says Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. ''He did not get the nomination, but he is now a household word for something other than publishing.''

Although he started off as a wooden campaigner, Forbes gradually caught on, and his six smiling daughters presented an upbeat backdrop for the campaign.

Forbes's expected withdrawal (which was not official at press time) was not a surprise: Almost every card-carrying Republican was pleading this week for him to stop hammering Senator Dole, the likely GOP nominee. But Forbes had maintained that he was in the race to the end.

The end came early, however, after Dole vacuumed up delegates on Super Tuesday. When the dust settled, Forbes had 76 delegates compared with Senator Dole's 737 delegates. Forbes had two upset wins - in Delaware and Arizona. He spent heavily in New Hampshire and Iowa but came away empty-handed. And, he spent about $1 million to get on the ballot in New York, but could not beat the state Republican organization, which backed Dole.

Paul Gigot, a conservative political analyst on the Lehrer News Hour, credits Forbes with keeping ideas on the table. ''He kept the concept of economic growth before the public,'' Mr. Gigot says.

Economic growth was a keystone for Forbes. In his economic universe, growth would make up the revenues the government would lose by lowering the tax rate to a flat 17 percent. Throughout his campaign, he stressed that he was the candidate of ''growth, hope, and opportunity.''

Forbes and flat-tax mentor Jack Kemp, who works out of the offices of Empower America, a conservative think tank, share the same economic optimism. Kemp's endorsement of Forbes the day before the New York primary angered Dole and may have damaged Kemp's chances to be on the ticket or get a position in a Dole administration.

Although Dole may eventually take up this economic theme, political analysts doubt he is likely to embrace Forbes's crusade for a flat tax. ''I think Dole will move to a flatter tax, a simpler tax, but the specific flat tax is damaged goods,'' says Mr. Busch.

Forbes's political future is unknown. But the publisher appeared to enjoy the give and take of the campaign. He has indicated that he might run again in 2000.

''He'll be back,'' says Mr. Sabato, who adds, ''It may be in the form of a presidential bid, or the governor of New Jersey, or a Cabinet officer.'' There have been suggestions he will run for the open seat of retiring Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey.

Sabato doubts the public has seen the last of the publisher. The quick-witted Forbes is likely to be a regular on the Sunday talk show circuit and the Larry King show. He is likely to carry on his crusade against the tax system from there.

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