"Look at Mr. Greenspan," Steve Forbes told an appreciative breakfast gathering here. "He always looks like he's coming out of a funeral." George W. Bush never would say anything like that, and it is one reason why the millionaire magazine publisher just might threaten the governor of Texas for the Republican presidential nomination.

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan is a household god for the same establishment Republicans who have made Bush the prohibitive presidential favorite. But Forbes alleges that the world's most celebrated central banker has created a commodity deflation, causing the deepening farm recession. Large audiences seemed to agree as Forbes launched an elaborately organized seven-day, 28-county bus tour getting ready for the straw vote at Iowa State University on Aug. 14.

That event may drastically trim the 12-candidate GOP field. With runner-up Elizabeth Dole fading after backing gun control, Bush strategists fear a two-man race, with Forbes running as the Anti-Bush and unifying social conservatives.

"Iowa Stubborn," celebrated in "The Music Man," was the curse of previous GOP front-runners and the reason why some Bush backers toyed with skipping the 2000 Iowa caucuses. While he is still far ahead in Iowa, Bush's lead here is below both his national margin and Bob Dole's edge four years ago. The Bush camp worries about a one-on-one duel with Forbes, the only adversary with the money for a long struggle against him, savaging the governor as he did Dole four years ago.

Forbes, a late, unknown entrant in the 1996 cycle, relied on a televised "air war" that bloodied Dole but also left self-inflicted wounds. This time there is a Forbes "ground war" run by some of Iowa's best political operatives. No negative television commercials are in prospect, and Forbes on the campaign stump never mentions Bush by name.

Nevertheless, he distinguishes himself from the front-runner in his detailed privatizing programs, his vigorous antiabortion position and his statement for judicial litmus tests. Forbes's overall anti-establishment tone is implicitly anti-Bush. He has no good words for the party's national and congressional leaders, ridiculing their 10 percent tax cut spread over 10 years. ("Why not make it for a thousand years, for crying out loud?")

His sniping at Greenspan fits that pattern. Collapsed farm prices, he declares, "are artificial, engendered by the Federal Reserve's tight money policy." He dissents from establishment enthusiasm for a fourth Greenspan term at the Fed. "I would want to have a heart-to-heart with him and be sure that he has the right kind of policy," Forbes told me.

Fed-bashing wins applause, as does his call for Justice Department antitrust attention on Cargill, the giant agricultural marketer, "instead of going after Microsoft." "He's the one telling the truth about the Fed and Cargill," farmer Vince Rolling told me after hearing Forbes in Algona.

The anti-party message actually hits a responsive cord with conservative Republican activists. "He alone has stood up to the Republican Party since 1996," said Kossuth County GOP Chairman Ken Clark, a retired farmer. "And by gum, we owe him a lot."

While some listeners complained that Forbes's campaign oratory is "dry" (Midwestern for boring), more were impressed by how much smoother he has become. He even occasionally ad-libs, as at Steamboat Rock, when a questioner drew from Forbes criticism of Title IX mandating equal athletic scholarships for women, and then pressed whether he would force Education Department officials to conform. "Why do you assume that these bureaucrats will be around when I get to Washington?" Forbes shot back.

Andy Cable, a self-employed businessman, liked what he heard at Steamboat Rock but added, "I'm not sure he's electable." At Fort Dodge, hospital administrator Jim Fitzpatrick said Bush looked like a winner, but added, "I'd like to know what he stands for." I heard these doubts everywhere: Forbes looks like a loser; Bush looks empty.

The trade-off gives Bush a big edge. But from the kind of Iowans who go to mid-July political rallies, I also heard concern that their distinctive role in the nominating process is threatened by Bush's lockup of money and endorsements. These exemplars of Iowa Stubborn could become dangerous if Forbes can convince them he is the sole alternative.

(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.