IF there's one thing the Steve Forbes phenomenon shows, it's the overwhelming power of money in the way Americans choose their president. Starting with no organization and practically no name recognition, Mr. Forbes used millions of dollars and saturation TV and radio advertising to put himself in contention in just three month's time.
With Iowa over and New Hampshire upon us, Forbes may no longer be the strong contender he for a time appeared to be. But his performance nonetheless raises important issues.
Forbes, it turns out, has been lending part of his personal fortune to his campaign, with the hope of reimbursing himself with millions of dollars raised from special interests nationwide, in 10 to 15 fund-raising events in the weeks ahead. So the candidate who advertised himself as not being just another politician of the special interests is, after all, a candidate who may be supported substantially by special interests.
Our federal elections have become an exclusive, ''pay-to-play'' process. In 1996, the major candidates who would be president are either millionaires themselves or have already raised many millions of dollars. In 1995, they cumulatively raised more than $100 million, before a single vote was cast anywhere - an unprecedented figure.
President Clinton raised nearly $26 million in roughly seven months, or more than $120,000 a day. That kind of cash doesn't come from backyard barbecues. Indeed, most Americans do not contribute to political campaigns at all. In the 1992 federal elections, fewer than 1 percent of the American people gave contributions of $200 or larger.
In his essay ''The Power of the Powerless,'' Czech leader and writer Vaclav Havel urged that we all ''break the rules of the game'' and ''live within the truth.'' We should stop living the lie of presidential campaign pap, vacuous rhetoric, advertising, and the almost-daily analysis of who's ahead. It is time that we all reject that quadrennial ritual and begin to expose the real foundations of power in the 1996 presidential election and in our national political process.
The truth is, the presidential campaign is less a ''beauty contest'' or ''horse race'' than a giant auction, in which multimillion-dollar interests compete to influence and gain access to the candidates.
The significance of the money chase is evident when you consider who is not running for president. During the past year, several major national political figures - former Education Secretary William Bennett, former Defense Secretary Richard Cheney, former HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, former Vice President Dan Quayle - all declined to run for president, at least in part because of the money chase that is a prerequisite to candidacy.
As I and my colleagues did the research for ''The Buying of the President,'' Jack Kemp told us he was unwilling to do 200 to 250 fund-raisers in 1995, traveling more than 80 percent of the time. He says the process is ''too long and too expensive,'' and that those who successfully pursue the White House necessarily must be ''compulsive'' about it, literally for years.
In every presidential election since 1976, the candidate who has raised the most money at the end of the year preceding the election, and who has been eligible for federal matching funds, has become his party's nominee.
The unvarnished truth is that voters in 1996 - as in every other election - will get a ''package deal,'' not just a politician but also his patrons and their priorities as well. Now, more than ever, we must all ''follow the money.''
Not surprisingly, most politicians prefer not to discuss the special interests behind their candidacies or the influence of their funders. They will talk about almost everything but that.
Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas should explain why his top ''career patron'' over the years is the Gallo wine family of California, which has helped to sponsor Mr. Dole's career in the amount of $381,000 while Dole has helped their company get millions of dollars in tax breaks and other favors.
President Clinton, whose top career patron has been Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street investment bank, should explain how his ''putting people first'' administration has pursued and served corporate America more aggressively and more systematically than any previous administration. Corporate lobbyists in Washington have enjoyed remarkable, regular access to Mr. Clinton and his White House, in spite of campaign promises about ''breaking the stranglehold of special interests.''
Lamar Alexander should address exactly how his net worth skyrocketed while he was governor in a series of deals that would make J.P. Morgan envious. Four presidential candidates - Clinton, Dole, Sen. Phil Gramm (now a former candidate), and Mr. Alexander - have had advantageous business dealings with financial backers from their campaigns involving owned or rented property, and the public has a right to know the details of these transactions.
The 1996 campaign presents an opportunity to disclose and describe the buying of the presidential process. Questions should be asked again and again, by local and national reporters and by other citizens, until they are answered.
We are allowing our government ''of the people, by the people, and for the people'' to be led by someone initially chosen by only some of the people - narrow, vested interests with a direct, financial stake in specific government policies and decisions.