Candidate Forbes to Try His Fortunes Again
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 1999; Page A1
The date was Oct. 21, 1997. The audience was the Heritage Foundation, the Washington-based bastion of conservative thought. For Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, it was a coming out of sorts. No longer would he be deflecting questions about abortion and school vouchers by returning every topic to his favorite subject, the flat tax. Instead, the wealthy publisher from Bedminster, N.J., with the high political ambitions had come to talk about "The Moral Basis of a Free Society."
Forbes was practicing that day for the real thing – his next bid for president. Today, the iconoclast who surprised and irked the Republican establishment with his presidential bid in 1996 will launch his second campaign for his party's nomination on the Internet and with a trip to New Hampshire.
Forbes emerged almost from nowhere in 1996, using his millions, flat-tax mantra and Washington outsider message to make himself into a force in the GOP primaries, and in the process doing much damage to the candidate who finally won the nomination, Robert J. Dole.
This time, political strategists say, Forbes has the potential to genuinely compete for the nomination – he has broadened his message, and no Republican candidate other than Texas Gov. George W. Bush is as likely to have the financial resources to go the distance.
Forbes, 51, has hired top-notch strategists, and while he still can appear awkward and stiff, he has improved his appearance, sharpened his rhetoric and honed his speechmaking, political observers say. And this time round, voters can expect a very different Forbes than the one whose robotic recital of the glories of the flat tax in 1996 carried him to victories in Delaware and Arizona but forced him to drop out after fourth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Then Forbes's campaign failed to attract the active base of social conservatives, who disliked what they believed where vague and evasive answers on social issues, such as abortion and private school vouchers. But in the three years since then, Forbes – the same man who once called Christian Coalition Founder Pat Robertson a "toothy flake" – has recast himself as a hero of the religious right wing of the Republican Party. In the scores of speeches he has delivered since then, he has emphasized America's moral challenges as much as its economic ones.
"There's still a major vacuum out there. There's no one pushing fervently and inspirationally on the policies that we need," Forbes said in an interview on Friday. "Without strong leadership, these things won't get done – on taxes, social security, moral issues like school choice and life."
The new Forbes was on display in January, at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference meeting in Northern Virginia, where he reiterated his support for the flat tax, abolishing the IRS and privatizing Social Security. Then he switched directions. "These ideas will only take us so far without a clear message on the moral and spiritual challenges facing this country," he said. "People expect more of their leaders. The times require it. But above all, conscience demands it."
This from the man who angered religious conservatives in 1996 by proclaiming that the Christian Coalition "does not speak for most Christians."
Forbes insists his values and positions have remained consistent. But he acknowledged that the issues he is emphasizing have evolved since 1996. Forbes said because he entered that race late and as a virtual unknown, he had to make his mark with a simple, straightforward message. He characterized his new focus as more pragmatic than political.
"Outside of the heat of the campaign, you can have a more thorough discussion by having people hear it directly rather than through the filters, or through the shouted question," he said in an interview.
In 1996, Forbes had almost no grass-roots organization, so he relied on a television and radio ad war financed by more than $37 million of his own money. He shot up in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire as a result of the advertising blitz. But when his opponents attacked his plan for a flat tax, the voters took a second look and Forbes plummeted.
Forbes aimed much of his advertising at Dole, and many GOP leaders have never forgiven him for it.
When asked if he would utilize the same expensive negative advertising strategy this time, Forbes insisted he had never personally attacked another Republican and that he looked "forward to a campaign with a vigorous debate on the issues, to substance, not sizzle and spin."
After 1996, Forbes and his aides embarked on an endeavor to dispel criticism that he had done little to build up the party by, among other things, donating heavily to individual campaigns and state parties around the country – and in the process acquiring political chits. Forbes has also inserted himself in policy debates all over the country, challenged the GOP congressional leadership's "tepid proposals and vague-sounding principles," poured his money into conservative battles against late-term abortion and assisted suicide, and delivered speeches that railed against the "elites" who have dragged the country's morals to the gutter.
Forbes and his strategists believe that by retaining his support among economic conservatives and expanding it among the social conservatives, he will align himself as the best candidate to unite the party and return it to the White House in 2000.
Crucial to that goal was repairing his reputation with abortion foes.
In the summer of 1996, Forbes formed a political action committee called Americans for Hope, Growth & Opportunity, and used it to boost his bona fides with social conservatives. In news releases posted on the PAC's Web site, Forbes said things such as, "Life begins at conception and ends at natural death" and "Partial birth abortion is a euphemism for infanticide, and it has no place in a civilized society."
On March 5, 1997, he sent a memo to dozens of party leaders, urging them to focus on a conservative agenda, including redoubling "efforts to force President Clinton into signing such a ban [on late-term abortion]."
A few months later, Forbes launched radio ads in seven states, encouraging voters to call their senator and urge them to vote for a bill banning late-term abortions. "This is about the right of partially born babies to live, not fall prey to this gruesome form of infanticide," he said in the ad.
At the same time, he put together a grass-roots organization, recruiting Christian conservative activists around the country who will be crucial in mobilizing voters in GOP primaries. He also hired numerous conservatives strategists, including media consultant Greg Mueller, who worked for presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan in 1996.
Nancy Streck, a Christian Coalition activist from Ida Grove, Iowa, who supported Buchanan in 1996, said she'll work for Forbes this time. "I think [Forbes] probably has always been a social conservative, but he didn't really talk about those issues last time," she said, adding that "after sitting down and talking one on one, you could see he's sincere."
Early signs are that Forbes has won over some key social conservatives. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson have put Forbes on their short list of favorites.
Last week, three prominent social conservatives, Brent Bozell, Richard Viguerie and Morton Blackwell, wrote to hundreds of conservative activists around the country urging them to support Forbes. "We believe there is only one principled Reagan-like conservative who can energize the conservative base, unite the Republican Party, attract conservative Democrats and Independents and be strong enough to win," they wrote. "We believe that candidate is Steve Forbes."
Others question whether Forbes's strategy will work.
"It's unclear to me if he's going to be a credible candidate with those on the level just below the elites who he's been talking to," said Jeffrey Bell, consultant to likely GOP candidate Gary Bauer and a former campaign operative for Ronald Reagan.
Jude Wanniski, a well-known supply-side economist who helped convince Forbes to run in 1996, said: "He has an identity problem now because nobody can quite figure out who Steve Forbes is. Is he a flat tax guy or a social conservative? He's betwixt and between."
Cook and Stuart Rothenberg, another election analyst, said they put Bush alone at the top tier of GOP candidates. Should Bush stumble, both agreed that Forbes had as good a chance as any other candidate. His drawbacks, they said, were mostly intangible, but formidable nonetheless. Many voters – including those who like his message – simply find it difficult to envision him as president.
"He's just not personally engaging," said Rothenberg. "He's not warm enough. His style is mechanical. We probably shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but the cover of this book is kind of strange."
Staff researchers Nathan Abse and Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company