Magazine Mogul Emerges as a GOP Contender

Steve Forbes's financial assets have helped propel him into the '96 race, but may also be his biggest handicap

STEVE FORBES JR. must not have gotten the memo: In these determined times, the proper dress code for Republican presidential candidates is a stern face.

The issues, after all, are serious: balancing the budget, protecting American jobs from cheap foreign labor, making our streets safe. So grave is the day, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm once commented, it might even be necessary to elect a president as unglamorous as himself.

Even so, Mr. Forbes, a megamillionaire magazine publisher who is seeking the Republican nomination, is decidedly upbeat. His lips seem permanently shaped in a reassuring, "C'mon folks, it's so easy" smile. All we have to do is balance the budget and replace the income tax, and we'll all have 4.9 percent mortgage rates.

Such Reaganesque optimism is one reason Forbes, who entered the race only three months ago, is in second place in early-bird primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Of course, another explanation is his ability to draw on large private cash reserves to bombard states with radio and television ads. He's also the only true outsider in the race, having no previous political experience.

So should front-runner Sen. Bob Dole be worried? Could Forbes fill the shoes Colin Powell said didn't fit, champion the discontent vote, and perhaps capture the nomination? His money makes him a contender, but there are already signs he may be a short-lived phenomenon.

"Forbes has a simple message, one that connects with voters that are tired of politics as usual," says Tim Penny, a former congressman from Minnesota. "In spite of that message, and his money, he's not likely to get all that far."

For one thing, Forbes doesn't have a rags-to-riches story to tell, as did Ross Perot. "His appeal is limited by the fact that he is not perceived to have experienced real life," Mr. Penny says.

Son of the the late publisher, Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes Jr. behaves more like a middle-class suburbanite than heir to a fortune estimated to be worth at least $200 million. Temperate and relaxed, he shows little of his father's appetite for such things as Harley-Davidson motorcycles and hot-air balloons.

Forbes is a fiscal conserative, social moderate in the style of his friend Jack Kemp, the former Reagan Cabinet secretary and congressman. He attacks what he regards as the obstacles Washington imposes on individual opportunity and responsibility.

That means scrapping the income tax, which Forbes regards as the cornerstone of the current political culture in Washington. "The income-tax code is 7 million words," he said during a recent speech at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "Let's junk it. It is legalized corruption."

The Forbes flat tax would allow personal exemptions of $13,000 per wage earner and deduction of $5,000 per child. A family of four earning $36,000 a year, for example, would pay no taxes. In this case, any income beyond that amount would be taxed at 17 percent, and no levies would be applied on savings, investments, or consumption.

To help reduce interest rates, Forbes would reattach the dollar to a fixed standard such as gold. He would replace Medicare with a medical savings account, which would give recipients the ability to chose their own health-care program. For younger generations, he would replace Social Security with a system of personal IRAs, or individual retirements accounts. Forbes also supports term limits and school choice, giving parents more power to pick which public schools their children attend.

But many of these ideas are common to the campaigns of his rivals for the Republican nomination. Forbes's political assets - the things that set him apart from the others, such as his money, optimism, and lack of a political background - may in the end work against him.

Consider the money. Forbes is financing his own campaign, which frees him from federal spending restrictions. That may also prevent him from building a base, however. In Iowa, voters who participate in the Feb. 12 caucuses are likely to be people who have made personal campaign contributions to one candidate or another. With money comes loyalty.

"Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan have lots of people who have paid money to their campaigns," says Stephen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University. "Those people are likely to stay with the candidate they have given their money to. In caucuses, you need individuals, not money."

Another problem may be Forbes's campaign tactics. To make up for lost time, he has resorted to radio and television ads to spread his name. Lately, those commercials have focused negative attacks on Senators Dole and Gramm. And that kind of campaigning, says Dickinson Bennett, director of the American Research Group (ARG) in Manchester, N.H., is what voters have come to expect from accomplished politicians.

"The negative ads look like bad politics," he says. "People feel that if you want to attack Bob Dole or Phil Gramm, you should do so where the people can see you do it."

Penny, furthermore, wonders whether running as a Washington outsider is an effective strategy for Republicans, especially in primary elections. "These candidates are competing within the GOP for Republican votes," he says. "The GOP is in the majority. The outsider message is not quite as powerful with a group that feels it is in ascendancy."

With a new ARG poll showing Dole's support in New Hampshire growing from 30 percent to 42 percent in a month, Forbes may do more to stifle the rest of the pack than seriously threaten the front-runner.

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