Here comes Forbes, but where are voters?

Earnest millionaire touts his life's lessons.

Make no mistake about it, this is supposed to be a meet-and-greet. It says so on the campaign schedule: "12:05 p.m., Village Green Market, Meet & Greet Patrons."

The only problem is there is hardly anybody for Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes to meet or greet. True, there's the small pack of staff and local and national reporters who've spilled out of two Forbes campaign buses, loudspeakers on the roof blaring a patriotic John Philip Sousa march to announce the candidate's arrival.

But as far as real people go - voters, that is - there's just a couple of folks behind the counter of the small store. Mr. Forbes gamely exchanges a few niceties, buys a newspaper and a package of doughnuts, smiles politely, stuffs a few bills into a charity box near the cash register, and leaves.

Meet and greet? It's puzzling. After all, this is the day after the first Republican debate to include front-runner George W. Bush, in which Forbes earned kudos for his performance. It's also the day that the Union Leader, the influential conservative New Hampshire newspaper, has splashed its endorsement of Forbes all across the front page.

So why aren't more people here? Why hasn't somebody done something to capitalize on the buzz? No one seems to have an answer. If Forbes is upset, he doesn't show it. Even his staff shrugs it off; simply moving their man along to the next event, a talk-radio interview. The whole thing is actually part of a much larger puzzle: Why is this man, a multimillionaire magazine publisher, running for president of the United States?

Since 1995, when he blew onto the Republican primary scene as a one-issue latecomer trumpeting the flat tax, Forbes has spent some $60 million - most of it out his own pocket - to achieve that goal. He has maintained a punishing schedule, pleading his cause. He has endured all manner of insult from the media, which regularly refer to him as geeky, nerdy, and awkward.

So why on earth does he do it?

Skeptics trot out psycho-driven answers like ego and ambition, or the need to outdo his flamboyant father, the late publisher Malcolm Forbes. But spend any time talking with Steve Forbes, or his family or friends, and you're likely to come away with a basic answer: The guy simply believes his ideas are the best way to help America and its citizens prosper in the century ahead.

"He's not doing it to be somebody," says his wife, Sabina, a gracious but reserved woman who often campaigns with him. "He's doing it because he can change this country. He's always gone after what he believed in."

Forbes pushes ideas

Brett Schundler, Forbes's deputy campaign chairman and mayor of Jersey City, N.J., adds, "If you want to understand Steve, the reality is, he believes in what he's saying. He's an intelligent guy who has cared his whole life about solving problems. He's been searching for answers, and he thinks he's found those answers.

"And he doesn't see any other candidate out there who's talking about those answers," he says. What Forbes seems to believe in most of all is a kind of Reagan-esque view of government, which centers on minimizing the role of Washington in the lives of Americans. On Forbes's agenda, item No. 1 (which was the only item on his agenda in 1996) is a radical overhaul of the tax system.

His plan involves eliminating the Internal Revenue Service, tossing out the nation's multimillion-word tax code, and replacing federal income taxes with a so-called "flat tax" of 17 cents on the dollar. Personal exemptions of $13,000 for adults and $5,000 for children are allowed, but every other existing deduction would be eliminated, including interest on home mortgages.

A flat tax would offer a whopping savings for taxpayers currently in the highest tax brackets (like Forbes himself), but in the campaign Forbes repeatedly refers to the savings it means for Americans of more modest means. Over and over, he points out, a family of four would pay no taxes on their first $36,000 of income - a savings he calculates at $1,600 a year.

This time around, he's broadened his anti-Washington assault to embrace other issues: He advocates school choice, for example, and proposes new Social Security retirement accounts that would allow individuals to invest their earnings as they choose.

Paradoxically, however, he's outlined a conservative social agenda that involves greater government involvement in the lives of citizens. He's called for the Ten Commandments to be posted in schools, for example; he's also laid out a plan to ban abortion step by step, beginning with a ban on so-called partial-birth abortions, abortions for the purpose of sex selection, and federal funding of abortions. He has promised to appoint only anti-abortion judges.

His agenda, he says, is rooted in values and themes that stem from his own growing up. He was raised by loving but distinctly different parents - an outgoing, hard-driving father who ran twice for governor of New Jersey (on an antitax platform) and a caring mother who shunned public life. "They were two very different people," says Forbes, during a recent interview on his plush campaign bus, traveling through southern New Hampshire. "But they imparted to me a very strong sense of values, a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong, a strong sense of the work ethic."

Forbes learned the value of work and money at an early age. Despite being the son of a multimillionaire, he was given a typical allowance - about 25 cents a week (which he often spent on comic books) - for chores such as weeding the garden. He also pitched in with the family business: As he got older, Forbes spent summers working at the magazine - starting out in the mailroom, moving on to research and writing, and finally - after his father passed on in 1990 - to the post of editor in chief.

It's not exactly a typical rsum for a man who wants to be president, and many political observers say Forbes's lack of experience in elective office is a huge drawback. But on the campaign trail, the candidate argues that his background serves him well: He's done business in some 60 countries, he says, giving him more experience than his fellow Republican candidates; as a CEO, he's had to deal with real budgets - rather than being able to raise taxes to make up for shortfalls, as politicians do. Most important, he says, he's an outsider who's passionate about changing America.

"My father had a very strong sense of hard work, of pursuing your dreams and ambitions," he says. "We grew up with the sense that part of your value in life comes from the work that you do, that discovering your talents is what you're here on the earth for.

"If you believe in a cause, as I do," he says, "then you have to be willing to do things that may not work out. Give it a try, even if it doesn't work out, as long as you gave it your all."

He's certainly giving this campaign his all, traveling nonstop and organizing highly respected political operations across the country, virtually all of it financed from his personal fortune, which has been estimated at around $445 million. It isn't money he's just had sitting around: Forbes has been selling off some of his personal resources.

How much he has to show for it remains to be seen. Forbes came in second in an Iowa straw poll, after spending approximately $2 million. Until recently, he's spent much of his time drifting in the single digits in polls - although he doubled those numbers in post-New Hampshire debate polls.

"[Forbes] thinks that even if he doesn't win, he'll have made the United States a better place by moving us towards solutions," says Schundler. "Because there will be others who will pick up his proposals."

Two campaigns will be enough

Forbes won't discuss his candidacy in any terms other than winning, but he has a healthy dose of pragmatic self-knowledge. Time magazine estimated that he has enough money to run for president 11 times, but Forbes says if he loses this time, he will not run again.

"With the presidency," he says, "you get two bites at the apple. Two big bites. That's the way it works." He also has a disarming awareness of - and a surprising sense of humor about - what many observers see as his greatest shortcoming: his own stiffness as a candidate. "I am the only Republican who can match [Al] Gore on charisma," he says, with a straight face. Generally considered to be a more relaxed candidate than he was in 1996, Forbes still looks remarkably uncomfortable in the role of politician.

"Look at everything about Forbes," says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg of Washington. "His campaign team is quite experienced and good, his message is good for Republicans, and he has a gazillion dollars. He's the ideal candidate by all these measures.

"But the personality thing is huge. The No. 1 thing voters look for is personal leadership style, and Forbes doesn't have it."

Forbes is unfazed by the criticism. He believes in what his father taught him, in the value and payoff of hard work and best efforts. "I'm not a Nelson Rockefeller, nor am I a Bill Clinton," he says.

"But I think that one of the virtues of a long campaign is that once people really begin to make up their minds, they are less concerned with style than they are with substance.

"There are other things that people are looking for," he says. "We've had the charisma and we've seen there's nothing behind it. I think people are looking for a little something different this time."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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