WHAT FORBES' MONEY BUYS;GROWTH PAIN

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Money is called the mother's milk of politics. And today most of that money goes for political advertising, primarily TV commercials. Presidential candidates are now busy raising and spending money-and grousing about others spending too much of it.

The complaint that well-heeled candidates are trying to "buy" the presidency is certainly not new. Bar-ry Goldwater, John Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller and Ross Perot all felt the sting of that charge. Now it's Steve Forbes' turn. The attacks are picking up steam in direct proportion to his rise in the polls.

The charge might hold water if the U.S. followed the British system of counting campaign time in weeks instead of months. But in this country, there is ample time for the media and voters to put Steve Forbes under the microscope, to see if he might have what it takes to lead the nation; to examine and discuss his flat-tax proposal. The media spotlight has already been turned on him, even before the first primary vote.

Money doesn't buy an election, it buys the visibility that advertising generates, which of course the Forbes magazine magnate urgently needs against public figures such as U.S. Senators Bob Dole and Phil Gramm. From then on, it's up to the voters.

Money also buys attention for the candidate's agenda. Mr. Perot lost the election, but he turned the nation on to the need to balance the national budget, now a high priority of both major parties. Barry Goldwater's candidacy, though unsuccessful, put conservatives in charge of the Republican Party, and the party has grown in popular support since then. If Mr. Forbes fails to win the GOP noimination, but gets the nation to work seriously toward a saner tax code, his money may be considered well spent.

Those who rail against Mr. Forbes' lavish ad spending should note that it's his money, unlike the millions of tax dollars that help finance the other candidates. The broad issue of how to finance political campaigning is open to plenty of discussion and debate. But the charge that Steve Forbes is trying to buy his way to the White House just doesn't scan. Voters deserve a discussion of real issues this election year, and Forbes' money and advertising are helping them get it.

The internet's development as an advertising vehicle is still fraught with obstacles, from an absence of audience measurement standards that results in widely disparate user estimates, to out-of-left-field rate structures, to a lack of historical benchmarks that make tracking its effectiveness and efficiency impossible.

But are we putting too much pressure on a medium still very much in its infancy? Were early Ameri-can magazines forced to justify their existence to advertisers two years after they emerged on the media landscape? Radio stations? TV networks?

Marketers and media companies are trying to move quickly past the experimental stage and into a profit-making one, with possibly disastrous results. By asking high CPMs for Internet ads, media sellers force agencies to make comparisons with more established media to justify spending client dollars. Under that approach, the Net can't measure up.

Media companies must keep the cost of entry low and marketers have to stop counting eyeballs during this extended experimental phase, or both will wind up losing faith.

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