Back on the bus

By Published on .

Most Popular
It is four years later for Steve Forbes, and on the campaign trail you see the difference in the details and the organization.

He still is the fish out of water-the millionaire magazine publisher whose lack of natural charisma makes Al Gore look positively effervescent. The new glasses appear friendlier, but there is still the noticeably wooden handshake, as well as gestures that seem scripted and timed as he greets voters during a day of campaigning in New Hampshire.

There is that same intensity too. Serious, purposeful-direct, even-in many of his one-liners. Rival GOP Sen. John McCain will jest through a town meeting; Texas Gov. George W. Bush will repeat a few jokes in speeches; but it is Mr. Forbes alone who will refer to the "infernal, I mean Internal Revenue Service" throughout the day.

This time, though, you get the feeling it matters more. Steve Forbes is no longer the all-but-ignored businessman operating below the media spotlight by force of personality-oh, and about $37.5 million in personal cash, much of it spent on negative ads to earn himself visibility and a serious shot at the GOP nomination.

KINDER, GENTLER

This time, he doesn't have to introduce himself. Now, he's marketing himself as a multidimensional candidate rather than a single-issue stumper.

And it's a kinder, gentler-if more complex Steve Forbes that has emerged in his advertising-a distinctly less negative strategy guiding his chance to win or lose the nomination.

Most likely it's his last chance. If another Republican rival gets the nomination, it could be years before another GOP primary race. And if a Democrat wins . . . would even Steve Forbes spend those personal millions on a third presidential bid?

Things have not been going well. As his caravan wends its way through New London, Concord and Hanover this day early in January on two silver buses with "Steve Forbes 2000. He wants America to win" on the sides, his poll numbers have put him well behind the frontrunners. Publicly, however, Mr. Forbes says the polls show increasing support, and suggests that Iowa caucus results will give him the boost before the New Hampshire primary.

But is it a bad sign today, that in a day of campaigning, Mr. Forbes will see not a single TV crew? Meanwhile, rivals Sen. McCain and Gov. Bush are drawing 400 people or more, while Mr. Forbes is drawing 50 or 60. Can it be a coincidence, then, that in a few days, Mr. Forbes will start running his first negative TV ad of the campaign?

All that is in the background as Mr. Forbes appears on a radio call-in show, stops into a restaurant to greet voters, and sponsors two citizens' forums. And each time, as he turns to talking about issues, Mr. Forbes' demeanor becomes animated as he acts the role of the college professor-turned-politician explaining economics, foreign policy or another campaign issue.

EXPANDING HIS FOCUS

The four-year wait has given him time to expand his issue focus and the campaign's supporters.

Sure, there is the flat tax (a "Citizen's Guide to the Flat Tax" is circulated at campaign events), but he is also talking about abortion (his "Right to be Born" position has grown more anti-abortion), education and foreign policy.

The Forbes' marketing machine has expanded, too. Last time, late to start, his presidential bid was mostly about TV advertising. This time, there is also an extensive grassroots effort and direct mail.

The decision not to accept federal matching money leaves Mr. Forbes free of the spending restraints it requires. And today, participants at Forbes events can get a copy of his book ("Steve Forbes: A New Birth for Freedom"), a picture with the candidate-and at one event, a free lunch, provided by the candidate.

"Four years ago, I was an asterisk. A complete unknown. So we had to heavy up on the air. This time we are more diversified," says Mr. Forbes in an interview aboard the silver bus on this warm and rainy afternoon. "That is why we have a diversified organization in Iowa. We have more mailings, newspaper ads, phone banks."

His campaign still has its oddities, of course. Why would anyone spend all those family millions to run for office, not just once but twice?

Mr. Forbes is taking contributions this time. But most of the funding is still his own.

"The vacuum is still there. The opportunity for doing right for the country is still there," he says.

Mr. Forbes' call to replace the current income tax with a flat income tax makes fascinating Forbes columns, but is it realistic? On the campaign trail, both citizens and opponents question not whether it is good, but whether Congress would eliminate the current tax code and all its tax breaks.

NO CONSENSUS BUILDER

"Forbes is not a consensus builder," said Bob Young, a research and development VP for a New Hampshire medical devices company, who at a Bush campaign event the following day, is debating which candidate to support. "He's too much a businessman used to telling people what to do. Forbes is not thinking how to get the plans through."

Gov. Bush, too, is critical. "My tax plan is one I can get passed," he says, answering a question from the audience during a rally. It's a thinly veiled swipe at Mr. Forbes. "I want to accomplish something."

Mr. Forbes dismisses the challenges and suggests the worries come from lobbyists. "My winning the election would be a profound message in Washington. It would shake it to the core. Look at those who have given me money. They are not the K Street lobbyists, not the trade groups, not the consultants. That is what truly worries them. If I win, they would have no hooks."

Mr. Forbes and his campaign advisors maintain it is the additional issues and the peculiarities of this year's race that are responsible for the relative lack of negative ads. Mr. Forbes says he is offering bigger ideas, and wants to use his ads this time-which are created by William Eisner & Associates, Hales Corners, Wis.-to talk about changes an outsider could bring to Washington.

ISSUE-ORIENTED

"We are waging an issue-oriented campaign. Others don't have much on the table. You see it in taxes, education. We have real substance there. That is the key."

He gets support from some attending today's long parade of events from a coffee shop appearance to a radio interview.

"He's the one candidate with real ideas on the table," says Brandt Denniston, a Springfield, N.H., computer consultant, during a stop at a New London restaurant. "He's a break from politics as usual."

Though New Hampshire pollster Dick Bennett claims as many as 40% of residents say they will never vote for Mr. Forbes, largely because of the negative tone set by his ads of four years ago, the candidate denies fear of voter backlash prompted his change in strategy.

His '96 ads "were comparative," he says. "There was nothing personal. It was all on issues."

New Hampshire could be important for Mr. Forbes, but how key to his campaign is not yet clear. Much depends on how his showing in the Jan. 24 Iowa caucuses is interpreted-and then what voters decide in the Feb. 1 primary here.

"I have to come out of here as a credible candidate," said Mr. Forbes. "I know how to do it. In 1996, I lost in both Iowa and New Hampshire. I was counted out. I came back and had victories in Delaware and Arizona. I'm in this for the long term. I know what it takes to go the distance."

In this article: