Anyone who runs for president these days expects to be singed by the press. But Steve Forbes really got barbecued last week.

In the Weekly Standard, Tucker Carlson writes that the wealthy publisher will "blow his family fortune ego-tripping through a midlife crisis." As for Forbes's strategy for winning the GOP nomination, "just about every political professional outside the Forbes campaign regards this scenario as borderline crackpot."

In the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert describes the candidate as "a geeky, hopelessly awkward plutocrat" and declares that "there is no rational explanation for what he is doing."

Fair comment or drive-by sniping? And is this part of a trend in which candidates are reduced to cartoonish characters? To wit: Al Gore as a dork needing a sex writer to find his inner alpha male. John McCain as a growling hothead. George W. Bush as a frat boy who can't name obscure foreign leaders.

Forbes spokesman Greg Mueller dismisses the criticism of his man as "largely background noise" by "the establishment media in New York and Washington." He notes that other commentators and local media outlets have recognized Forbes's strengths, and that Bush wants to encourage the idea that the race is over.

"The Bush campaign is spinning these stories simply because they know we are the only true threat to them long-distance," Mueller says. "We are a long-term threat because we have the resources to get our message out over the airwaves. The only candidate who has a shot at beating Bush is Forbes, if he's beatable."

That remains the big if; the latest Newsweek poll of GOP voters puts Bush at 63 percent, John McCain at 12 percent and Forbes at 9 percent.

"There's a sense in which you have to play along and pretend he's a real candidate," Carlson says. "He's created the illusion of a serious campaign. There's this idea--it's a mistaken idea--that simply because he has tons of money to throw into the campaign, he's got a shot. . . . Everyone has been too polite."

Kolbert describes what she calls "a balancing act everyone goes through every year: Are any of these guys credible? At what point does the press decide this person is not serious? That's a very tough game. By and large we should err on the side of taking people seriously until the voters decide otherwise."

But Kolbert's piece doesn't take Forbes very seriously. Neither does columnist Tony Snow--a former Bush White House staffer--who calls the Forbes campaign "a huge flop," saying Forbes "has no more chance of becoming the next president than Bill Clinton does of becoming the next pope."

Of course, the pundits have been wrong before; many declared Bill Clinton dead back in 1992. Forbes will likely have an impact as an idea-driven candidate who single-handedly put the flat tax on the political map last time around, when he spent $42 million on his campaign. Columnist David Gergen, for one, credited Forbes on ABC with being "the most improved candidate of the group."

Does being dissed by the Standard and the New Yorker really matter? These days, such scathing critiques tend to filter down the punditry food chain. But Mueller is unperturbed: "If you're in the news, you're making waves, and if you're making waves you're a contender."

The I-Test

Gore is getting serious about charming the media. Not only did he chat up CBS, ABC, the New York Times and USA Today and have dinner at Tina Brown's last week, he's booked tomorrow on "Imus in the Morning." Right, the same Don Imus who keeps ridiculing Gore as a phony and has savaged Clinton over his sexual high jinks.

"Don Imus is an extremely important player in the media," says Gore spokesman Chris Lehane, who listens to the I-Man on his morning jog.

Is the veep nervous? "We're going into this with our eyes wide open."

Just Saying No

While CBS and NBC topped their evening newscasts Wednesday and Thursday with a double murder at a Seattle shipyard, ABC's "World News Tonight" carried not a word. Executive Producer Paul Friedman says it wasn't clear whether this was another outbreak of workplace-related violence.

"It was a very good local story, which cable news played up to an extreme, ridiculous degree," Friedman says. "Totally out of proportion." Indeed, CNN, MSNBC and Fox went live for hours with aerial footage of a police dog sniffing the streets and occasionally relieving himself.

Journalists must remember, says Friedman, that there are 48 murders in America each day.

Gossip Gone

The San Jose Mercury News gossip columnist who was demoted over a sweetheart stock deal has sued the paper for sex discrimination, retaliatory firing and unequal pay. But the paper's editor says Chris Nolan wasn't fired, she quit.

Nolan ran into trouble last July when she turned a $9,000 profit by investing in a friend's Internet company at an insider's price before it went public. Editor David Yarnold suspended Nolan, abolished her column and transferred her to a lower-paying reporting job.

Nolan, who had been paid more than $100,000, is miffed that two male editors involved in the matter got off with a two-day suspension in one case and a reprimand in the other. "I am still quite shocked about that," Nolan told Reuters. "That goes to show how the Mercury News treats its women employees."

Blind Copy

When Washington Post reporter Tom Jackman wrote about the blind contestant who won big on "Jeopardy!," his Oct. 24 story began: "Eddie Timanus launches into John Belushi's famous monologue from 'Animal House,' one of several classic movie bits he has memorized start to finish, like many in his generation."

When the Washington Times devoted most of its feature front to Timanus six days later, its story began: "Eddie Timanus launches into John Belushi's famous monologue from 'Animal House,' one of several classic movie bits that he, like many in his generation, has memorized start to finish."

Plagiarism? Not quite. The Times gave Jackman a byline. It read: "Tom Jackman, Associated Press."

Times Deputy Managing Editor Fran Coombs says the mix-up--the AP wire had moved the story, crediting The Post--was inadvertent. "It just sailed through our usually nonporous system," Coombs says. "We're sure our readers enjoyed it as much as Post readers did."

Tough Customer

Who is TV Guide's hard-hitting choice to interview Regis Philbin about his recent game-show success? Bill Zehme, co-author of Philbin's 1995 autobiography.

All News is Local

"Palm Computing Manager Among 217 Aboard Who Went Down in the Atlantic; Search Continues"

--San Jose Mercury News.