The sign outside the motel says that Jesus loves you.

There's a tent revival coming. Corn prices are sinking, the town needs a paint job, and the young people are fleeing. It hasn't rained in a long time.

And inside the Super 8 Motel, in a paneled room filled with gray-haired farmers and blue-haired retirees, a man in a suit speaks haltingly--like someone wandering into a lake of uncertain depth--of fabulous days ahead.

Of sand turned to silicon. Of Christ and renewal. Of the flat tax, the glories of life and the perfidies of Washington. Of the coming era of fundamental renewal and reform.

"So are we going to realize the opportunities or, quite bluntly put, are we going to be damned by future generations?" He peers quizzically through tortoise-shell glasses with powerful lenses. "I have faith it can be done again. Looking to God and working together we can reach new heights. . . ."

"Thank you and God bless."

His forearms and hands, the only part of his body in motion during his talk, fall motionless by his side. The crowd applauds.

It's Malcolm Stevenson "Steve" Forbes Jr., 52, the Episcopal prairie preacher from Bedminster, N.J. The $430 million net worth populist. The outside insider.

The unnatural.

What to make of this Republican presidential candidate and his barnstorming show? This particular speech had sounded a bit stiff, a little canned. But so did his last five speeches. If he looked a bit like a mannequin up there, well, that's his look most of the time.

And his deliberate -- stac-ca- to --delivery -- never -- really--


But unlike his 1996 primary campaign, when the indisputably intelligent candidate tended to harmonize on the transcendental joys of the flat tax and mammon, he's gone and added another ingredient: God.

It's the stairway to political heaven, he believes. His door out of runner-updom. Never an office-holder--he's yet to hold a job he didn't inherit--he is nonetheless quite serious about becoming president.

Forbes jumped late into the 1996 race, riding out of New Jersey's horse country on a plane called "The Capitalist Tool." He tossed family dollars around like confetti--about $35 million in all--his flat tax/outsider message caught the moment, and quick enough he grabbed the covers of Time and Newsweek. He had Bob Dole and his nounless mutterings backpedaling.

Then the social conservatives who are the Republican Party's shock troops sniffed trouble: A wealthy Easterner who passed his days in the swank salons of Manhattan and seemed not quite enough pro-life. A repressed WASP who'd rather talk about taxes than the Big G.

Then Forbes insults Pat Robertson, calling the Christian Coalition founder a "toothy flake." And he says a woman who has been raped has "a right" to an abortion. Pretty soon Coalition members are picketing his campaign headquarters and he's falling, falling, falling in the polls.

By May 1996, he is out of it.

Now Forbes is nothing if not a methodical strategist; one gets the impression he could not fall asleep at night without arranging his slippers and bathrobe for the next morning. He's not going to let Christian Right lightning strike him twice. This year, he's trying to establish himself as the Conservative Alternative to the hyper-funded George W. Bush. Then he'll worry about capturing the center.

It is, Forbes points out, the old Reagan formula.

So his standard speech, which is to say the words he delivers with nary a comma out of place three or four times daily, touches every station of the social conservative cross: the "atrocity of partial-birth abortions"; the centrality of God in the Constitution; and a pledge to nominate only pro-life justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.

And he's sunk some venture capital into the effort, buying the right tables at the Right events, underwriting an anti-euthanasia initiative in Washington, slowly wooing the social conservatives who marched under Patrick Buchanan's banner last time around.

Now some doubting Thomases divine an eleventh-hour conversion at work. But the many aides who tend to Forbes fax over copies of articles and television transcripts in which the candidate discussed these same subjects in 1996, albeit in more muted and ambiguous terms.

Forbes himself sheds little light on his religious passions. He hails from a reserved class and tradition, in which church is a duty executed and rarely spoken of. God, and stock portfolios, are best tended in private.

"It was something we grew up with, it wasn't overt. We did it." As to abortion? "I never really thought about it before [his five daughters] were born. It was just one of those things that was there."

So you listen to him torture his way through an interview and you wonder: How could this embrace between horse-country WASP and street-picketing evangelicals appear anything but awkward? The headmen of the social conservative movement are sympathetic, to a point.

"I think the problem is cultural. In the circles in which he travels, you simply don't talk about these things," says Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation. "I think he has genuine convictions."

Weyrich pauses.

"Only God knows for sure."

Issues: He's Got a Million of Them

Photo time!

Get your picture taken with the candidate and his wife! That's right, step in front of the little computerized camera. Shoulder to shoulder with that man in the plain blue suit. You and the next president of the . . .





We're in Bon's Bake Shop in Greenville, Iowa, and Forbes is working a crowd of taciturn farmers. (If someone offers a hand, he shakes it.) The photos lighten things up a tad but Forbes seems most pleased when a brooding farmer named Nick takes the mike and minces no words:

"If you feel government should write the rules and regulations that govern our lives minutely, you should look at another candidate. If not, here's Steve Forbes."

Forbes steps forward with that expectant and unvarying chipmunk smile. In the existential business of campaigning, this is what he likes best: issues.

His stump speeches are civics texts, overflowing with facts, statistics and strongly held opinions. The Federal Reserve, China, the tax rate, the Internal Revenue Service, social security, the national highway system, home schooling: Nothing escapes the polymathic grasp of this second-generation magazine heir.

It is high fiber. No incredible lightness of George W. Bush here. Forbes attended Princeton, read widely, and conversed with the cream of the conservative intelligentsia. Let the Texas governor hit the books and try to keep up.

"We are going into the public arena with a sense of purpose," he says in the chin-up manner of a middle school headmaster. "No more palaver. We're setting the themes for the future, and we'll see what Mr. Bush has to say."

On matters of war and peace, Forbes is the model neo-con: The world is a dangerous place with billions more needed for defense. On the rights of the individual, it gets a little more confusing. He would restore a moral society but he's not much for imposing regulations on the culture czars. His impulse is libertarian--except when he's reaching out to the social conservatives.

Then it's not.

On economics, he's a supply-sider. No capital gains, no inheritance and no estate taxes. He wants to enact a flat 17 percent personal income tax and junk the "infernal, I mean, Internal Revenue Service."

He's a free-trader and noninterventionist. He even makes common cause with the Left. He would drive out the currency speculators and Federal Reserve and IMF bankers who impose interest rate hikes and draconian austerity measures on the world's poorest nations.

"The Fed Reserve and the World Bank are trying to manipulate our economy and the world economy. They're squeezing, squeezing because they think we're too prosperous. And who gets hurt? The farmers and the little people."

It's as if William Jennings Bryan had passed through the Princeton eating clubs. The effect is curious, but in this down-at-the-heels corner of Iowa the residents seem to dig it.

Jack Stream, a retired vet, is ready to pass out leaflets for the man. "Jesus Crackers, he's not exciting but at least he's not selling Viagra like that other guy who campaigned out here," he says. "Forbes is talking about banks and farmers and real things."

Then there's Washington: Forbes can't stand it. He views the political class, Republican and Democrat alike, with disdain. They are so frivolous.

"These politicians are really playing a shell game. . . . The politicos will put their paws in it [the budget surplus]. That is their nature. So we should show compassion for these creatures and not tempt them in the first place."

There is more than a hint of class antipathy at play, a patrician's distaste for the hagglers of the political marketplace.

"I'm the only one talking about the Federal Reserve. I may be the only one who understands this," he says. "Don't trust the politicos. I see through them, believe me.

"I would match my executive experience against any of them."

Forbes has strolled this road before. In the 1996 campaign, his television and radio ads did a tap dance on Dole's head. Dole was Washington: issueless, compromised, selling himself to the highest bidder. When the "politicos" finally punched back, it was clear the disdain was mutual.

Sen. John McCain summed it up four years ago: "The Republican Party will never nominate a man whose only crises in life were going to boarding school, going to Princeton and inheriting his father's magazine."

The Obedient Son of Wealth

"Hooray for the Red, White and Blue! . . ."

It's all you hear at first, John Philip Sousa blasting out of fields of corn stretched taut to the horizon, as though the heavens themselves had gone hallucinogenic saccharine. Then you see the buses, two air-conditioned beauties bearing down on the pristine and pretty much deserted town square of Knoxville, Iowa.

The Forbes Traveling Political Medicine Show has arrived.

Five fresh-scrubbed advance kids already are in place. A microphone is secured, leaflets handed out. Team Forbes is pedal to the metal until the Republican straw poll in Ames on Saturday. Poll ground rules? Any Iowa resident 16 1/2 years and older can vote. Period.

It is, in other words, an all-American experiment in filling buses, tossing a kick-butt party and legally buying an election. Perfectly tailored for the well-heeled Forbes campaign, with its flock upon flock of advance kids, spokesmen, consultants, super faxes and computer cameras.

Team Forbes is raising a vast air-conditioned tent outside the convention hall in Ames, with "name" country music acts and a couple tons of barbecued ribs. And they're sending buses to every crossroads in Iowa, prepaying individual registration fees, handing out trinkets and doodads by the bucket full.

Oh baby!

"Think of it like going to Disneyland in Iowa!" exclaims Steve Grubbs, a former state Republican Party chairman now hawking for Forbes.

Americans are not opposed to wealthy politicians. They kicked up their heels for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. But those guys had the touch. FDR, supremely confident and fearless. JFK the war hero, the virile risk-taker.

Even New York's late governor Nelson Rockefeller knew how to chow a blintz and say "Hiya, fella" like he meant it.

But Forbes isn't like that. The problem with being the obedient son of a vastly wealthy and charismatic man is that you're left with something to prove, but the common touch is elusive.

So Forbes recounts a Horatio Alger story on the stump. But it's about his grandfather and how he miscalculated the 1929 stock market. His aides say the candidate's favorite food is pepperoni pizza.

But Forbes eats elsewhere, too. In his recent column in the family magazine, he heartily recommends a little dish at Lespinasse: "Sauteed duck foie gras with sweet and sour apple compote served in a Fuji apple with cranberry coulis."

"Obviously, you can't determine the circumstances of your birth," Forbes says as the campaign bus shoots down another of those straight-as-a-ruler Iowa roads. "But when I was growing up, my father always wanted us to learn where your bread is buttered."

Drawing a bead on Forbes's electoral prospects is difficult. He's arrayed an impressive machine in the early primary states, his television commercials (soft and fuzzy so far) are already running in Iowa, and he's raised $2.6 million from people whose last name is not Forbes. His poll numbers aren't terrible.

But the problem with Iowa is that a candidate never knows what he's buying. Republican Sen. Phil Gramm learned that lesson last time. He turned on the spigot in 1996. Then he dove into an empty swimming pool on caucus day, finishing in fifth place.

Forbes draws nice applause, and the always polite Iowans at his events say they admire his earnest, anti-politician persona. But even those who wear a Forbes button say it's much too early to make a decision. They want to hear everyone's spiel.

Forbes professes no worry. He's packing theory, virtue, organization and all that money. It's clear he has seen this movie in his mind's eye for a long, long time.

"It's a race between the establishment and the independent outsider. The establishment doesn't want too much done. The outsider understands things must change or we'll lose what we treasure."

CAPTION: After learning an expensive lesson in 1996, Steve Forbes is tailoring his message to a more conservative audience.