For someone who may plunk down as much as $50 million of his own money on his presidential campaign, a lavish fund-raising dinner is, well, gravy.
So, Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes's maiden 2000 bash at the Waldorf-Astoria tonight -- heaped on top of the official entries of fellow Republican George W. Bush and Vice President Gore, the Democratic front-runner -- needed to be about far more than the $1.1 million it was expected to raise.
"New York is one of the financial centers of the country, and a candidate has to prove the ability to raise money to show he has staying power," gushed energetic, if sleep-deprived, campaign manager William Dal Col.
More than 1,200 people, paying $1,000 a head -- give or take $1,000 -- were expected to pile into the elegant ballroom to nibble on bourbon chicken and listen to novelist Christopher Buckley recite the "Top 10 Reasons to Vote for Steve Forbes" (No. 8: White House Easter Faberge egg roll). William F. Buckley Jr. was also on the guest list.
But as much as it was about cash, the evening was designed to cast Forbes as the man who understands high technology (hence an Internet simulcast) and certainly youth. Before Forbes pledged to enhance education, a stageful of Boy Scouts recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
"They're going to Kosovo after this to help NATO forces," Buckley quipped.
Still, Forbes was clearly the established tycoon who could round up hundreds of powerful friends to applaud his second attempt to leap from running a magazine to running a nation. "This is like a warm, family gathering," Dal Col asserted.
Much of Forbes's message has not changed since his last bid in 1996, though the packaging is different. Tonight, he was the freedom man, waltzing onto the stage as a Dixieland band played "Happy Days Are Here Again." Red-white-and-blue balloons floated around the room, and his new slogan, "A rebirth of freedom," fluttered behind him.
After being introduced by Yaphet Kotto, star of the just-canceled TV police series "Homicide: Life on the Street," Forbes preached that the nation's freedom had been robbed by poor schooling, high taxes, a depleted Social Security system and a lack of health insurance.
"What about the young family in New Hampshire who are among 43 million uninsured Americans?" he asked. "They work hard yet can't afford the government-inflated cost of health care. Are they free?"
He vowed that if elected he would abolish the internal revenue code. "I would throw out the entire 7 million-word tax mess and replace it with a flat tax," he said.
That was worth the price of admission for Martin Zweig, a money manager who became a Forbes fan by reading his column. "It's worth it to me to pay $1,000 to express my views on taxes," he said.
Lawrence Kudlow, the prominent economist, helped host the dinner because he's a fellow free-market proponent. "He and I believe in free markets and economic choice and freedom -- and that's the approach that makes for a healthy and prosperous economy," Kudlow said.
Forbes also used the forum to further his quest to become the Internet candidate. He opened his speech by noting that he was the first presidential contender ever to declare a candidacy online. And while guests chomped apple crumb tarts, Forbes addressed more than 400 people who paid $10 apiece to attend the fund-raiser in cyberspace. He was virtually accompanied by Kotto and Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, a co-campaign chairman (along with Godfather's Pizza chief Herman Cain).
Forbes2000.com has quickly become the grass-roots heart of the campaign, offering prizes to people who electronically solicit support from friends and family. So far, Dal Col said, 15,000 people have volunteered, helping fill campaign coffers with $2.5 million this quarter.
"The Internet for Steve Forbes in 2000," Dal Col asserted, "will do what TV did for JFK in 1960."