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In the week when Steve Forbes vaulted temporarily ahead of Bob Dole in a number of polls and tomorrow's New Hampshire primary seemed to grow geometrically in importance to all the Republican candidates, I went downtown to have lunch in the Forbes mansion on Fifth Avenue just a few blocks north of Greenwich Village.

Tim Forbes, who is sitting in for his older brother Steve as the family-owned firm's chief executive (Steve is on leave for the rest of the political campaign), issued the invitation shortly before Christmas. We set a date and on a crisp, sunny Tuesday morning at the end of January I walked down to see how the Forbes clan and their company was faring.

It was, after all, an extraordinary situation, I think you'll agree. If you except Ross Perot's wacky 1992 independent candidacy, you have to go back to 1940 for anything like the Forbes bid. Not since Wall Street's Wendell Willkie, a registered Democrat who headed the huge Commonwealth & Southern utility, jumped parties and ran against FDR (gave him a darn good fight, too), has there been such an outsider giving the pols a run. A year ago, who knew Steve Forbes?

The Forbes "mansion," as they call it, is really two handsome buildings that actually house the writers and editors and space salesmen who put out the Forbes magazine every fortnight. It is also world headquarters for the sprawling Forbes family business and a functioning private museum, full of Faberge eggs and toy boats and authentic framed letters from U.S. presidents and other wonders. In Malcolm Forbes' time there evolved this notion of a "mansion lunch," where the Forbeses and their editors and publishers sit around over lunch chatting and questioning a guest of the day, usually a famous figure or a big advertiser or an expert on something or other.

On Jan. 30 it was my turn in the barrel. And a very pleasant turn at that. Tim came downstairs to meet me and we walked up some back stairs to a very cheerful sitting room for a glass of wine before lunch. Bob Forbes joined us along with Managing Editor Lawrie Minard, Publisher Jeff Cunningham and Corporate Director of Press Relations Elizabeth Ames. And where was the fourth brother, Kip?

Said Tim, "He and Cap (Chairman Caspar Weinberger, former Secretary of Defense) are in Asia doing the work of the Lord." Which meant, I supposed, "you mean they're out selling some ads." Tim did not dispute this. While having a brother running for president may be exciting, the Forbes boys run magazines and selling ads is pretty fundamental stuff. January, said Cunningham and Tim, had been a bit slow but things were picking up. In recent years Forbes has sold more ad pages than any other magazine in America, more even than rival Business Week with its weekly frequency. But last year Forbes came in second behind a computer book, something Tim and Bob and Cunningham view as a one-time spike.

Over lunch I asked about that cover story blast at Forbes (both magazine and Steve) in Fortune. Was that commercial rivalry or politics or personal enmity or just being sassy? Tim went on at length on that including the possibility Steve's famous flat tax proposals might be inimical to Time Warner interests, especially its debt load. This was too arcane for me so I moved on to the campaign.

Six months ago would they have settled for Steve running a strong second to Dole? No, said a surprisingly feisty Tim, we expected him to be ahead. Had their lives been changed by having a brother suddenly so celebrated? After all, Malcolm had a famously high profile; the boys are more subdued. No, said Bob with a shrug. They go to restaurants they enjoy and anywhere else and see whom they want to see and no one seems to notice.

Business goes on routinely as well; Steve's run hasn't put everything on hold. That next day Tim was saying, they would launch a new quarterly, American Legacy, all about African-American history and culture, with the novel idea of distributing it mainly through black churches as a freebie with followup pitches to convert to paid subscriptions. When the meal was ended, Tim walked me downstairs to the street. Does he think his brother can actually win?

"I sure hope so," said Tim Forbes, "I like having this job."

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