Forbes Rewrites Book On Campaign Strategy

Wealthy publisher relies on sound bites over shoe leather

ONE morning shortly after New Year's, Sen. Phil Gramm trudged through a thick falling snow to the Promises to Keep restaurant, gathered a small group of stalwart supporters around him, and passionately delivered the opening stanza to Robert Frost's poem ''Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.''

Two mornings ago Steve Forbes arrived at the same eatery. He made no mention of Frost, who once lived in Derry, or the poem, from which the restaurant takes its name. Instead, he shuffled awkwardly from table to table greeting voters with a hesitant handshake.

In the entrances of these two Republican presidential candidates lies a study of the 1996 primary campaign - and clues to why someone as inexperienced as Mr. Forbes is nipping at Sen. Bob Dole's heels.

Senator Gramm, like Lamar Alexander or Pat Buchanan, was playing by the rules. In New Hampshire and Iowa, voters expected candidates to woo them, maybe even pander a bit.

Forbes hasn't played by the rules. Instead of traveling the lonely back roads in search of grass-roots support, he has spent almost $20 million flooding the airwaves with nonstop political advertisements. He even has one attacking Lamar Alexander, whom the polls are placing well behind in the race. Instead of building in-state organizations, Forbes reaches voters through out-of-state phone banks.

Only in the last two weeks, after becoming a viable candidate, has Forbes taken to the road in earnest.

The strategy has worked - so far. With the Iowa caucuses less than two weeks away, Forbes poses the only serious challenge to front-runner Bob Dole. If he wins or places second in either state, he will have written new roles for money and television in American presidential politics.

Since Jimmy Carter, ''no one even reached the top three in Iowa without a traditional [grass-roots] organization,'' says Hugh Winebrenner, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. ''That was always the legend that a little guy can win. Now a big guy comes in and rewrites the books with phone banks and ads.''

So can money buy a presidential nomination? Probably not. Forbes's rise has as much to do with message and climate as funds. He has tapped into the popular dissatisfaction that made Gen. Colin Powell so popular last fall with a simple, aggressive anti-Washington theme.

But Forbes has turned the logic of campaigning, and campaign spending, on its head.

Money and television took on new importance before Forbes entered the race. A year ago Gramm predicted that to succeed in this year's short six-week primary season, a candidate would need to raise $20 million by the end of 1995. That set the tone of the early race. Rival camps entered a fierce race to fatten their war chests and build organizations.

Then, last June, former Governor Alexander began running campaign ads to spread his name. That was a full six months sooner than candidates had ever run television spots before. By September, when Forbes entered the race, almost all the campaigns had commercials.

There is no way Forbes could begin building broad grass-roots teams that late. The other camps had long since recruited the best organizers in Iowa and New Hampshire. This should have given the new man little hope, especially in Iowa, where caucuses require organized support. Instead, it seems to have backfired.

By the time voters started paying close attention to the candidates a few weeks ago, many had become bored with the old crowd. Forbes, however, was a fresh face. His ads spread his name and piqued interest at the right time. Now, as he takes to the hustings, people are intrigued.

''I'm curious,'' says Diane Sharpell, owner of a massage studio in nearby Londonderry who came to hear Forbes speak. ''I'm curious to see what his flat-tax proposal would mean for families and small businesses.''

FORBES'S unpolished style, if lackluster, seems actually to boost his image as the nonpolitician. ''Steve Forbes is not part of the Washington bunch,'' says Tom Bloomfield, a software engineer in the audience. ''I haven't heard much about his stand on issues besides the flat tax, but he seems honest.''

The Iowa caucuses will determine whether Forbes has changed the rules of the game. With expectations now so high, most pundits say he needs to finish a strong second to stay viable. He'll either debunk or strengthen the importance of grass-roots organizations there.

As for shaking hands and tickling babies, former New Hampshire Gov. Hugh Gregg says Forbes is now reinforcing the role of retail politicking. He did things somewhat in reverse. But if strong polls were all he needed, why would he visit New Hampshire now?

''He's now got all the elements,'' Governor Gregg says: ''a new face and apple-pie message, money, and handshaking. If he wins, you can't say he ruined the New Hampshire tradition.''

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