In the continuing quest of presidential candidate Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes to remake his public image comes his latest incarnation: Steve Forbes, hero to black America.
In recent weeks, Forbes and his aides have attempted to expand his appeal to minority voters, whom he largely ignored in his 1996 presidential bid, by bringing several high-profile black officials onto his campaign. In doing so, advisers said, Forbes seeks to position himself as this election cycle's version of Jack Kemp, who has long been the GOP's most insistent advocate of broadening the party beyond its typical constituencies.
"I think that is a tremendous signal for Steve to be sending to the country," said Kemp, the GOP's 1996 vice presidential nominee. "There is no future for the Republican Party if it's an all white, suburban country club." Kemp has yet to endorse a candidate.
At a Forbes fund-raiser Wednesday at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, Forbes surrounded himself with a number of African American officials and activists. The sight inspired actor Yaphet Kotto to quip to conservative radio commentator Armstrong Williams, both of whom are black: "This is brothers' night."
Williams called around in recent days to inform reporters that Forbes was his guy. "Steve Forbes is doing something that George W. Bush and the Republican Party only talk about -- diversity, inclusively," he said. "But where is it? For Forbes to show the way is encouraging and energizing."
Last month, Alveda King, an outspoken proponent of school vouchers and the niece of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., endorsed Forbes's campaign. Two weeks ago, Forbes announced that Ohio Treasurer J. Kenneth Blackwell, the only black Republican in the country elected to statewide office, would serve as his national campaign chairman.
Then Forbes announced this month that Herman Cain, a conservative black businessman from Nebraska, would serve as a campaign co-chairman. On Wednesday in New York, Kotto -- a Democrat who said he voted for Bill Clinton in the last two elections -- introduced Forbes to a crowd of 1,200 people.
The new Forbes has worked diligently to shake the public perception from 1996 that he was a one-dimensional candidate whose message never got beyond the flat tax. Almost immediately after that election, Forbes began his political makeover. He courted social conservatives, whose lack of support doomed his 1996 bid. This spring, he became the first candidate to announce his campaign over the Internet, in an effort to bring his message to a hipper, younger crowd.
In appealing to black voters, campaign aides said, Forbes would not stray from his basic message of economic and social conservatism. Instead -- as Kemp has long done -- he makes the case that conservative ideals such as tax cuts and deregulation empower blacks and other disenfranchised groups to compete effectively in the 21st century economy.
Indeed, the infrastructure for Forbes's effort comes straight from Kemp. Forbes formerly served as the chairman of Kemp's and William J. Bennett's think tank, Empower America. Blackwell worked at the Housing and Urban Development Department as undersecretary under Kemp. And Forbes's campaign manager, Bill Dal Col, worked for Blackwell at HUD. Cain, a longtime friend of Blackwell and Kemp, said he met Forbes three years ago at an Empower America conference.
Cain, outgoing chairman of the National Restaurant Association and chairman of the board of Godfather's Pizza, said he and other blacks were not courted because they were black. But he acknowledged that "one of the things that I hope to do is help Steve get some exposure to some audiences he might not necessarily get exposed to."
Forbes spokesman Keith Appell said: "Whereas Reagan reached out to urban Catholic Democrats, Forbes is reaching out to other traditionally non-Republican constituencies because he's not going to concede a single vote to anybody -- not the Democrats, not George W. Bush, not to anyone."
David Bositis, senior policy analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank, is skeptical that the Forbes strategy will accomplish anything, in part because none of the blacks on the Forbes campaign has much cachet with the broader black electorate.
Nonetheless, he said, there is a certain logic to it: While black voters are a minuscule segment of the GOP primary vote, it is becoming increasingly important for Republican candidates to demonstrate viability among a broad spectrum of people. One of the reasons Bush is so popular within the party is the widespread belief that the Texas governor can appeal to relatively significant numbers of women, blacks and Hispanics in a general election.
"One thing that I could see possibly has to do with trying to craft his overall image, and that could be worthwhile," Bositis said of Forbes. "Any Republican candidate who is in any significant way associated with blacks, it takes off a lot of the hard edges."
But Raynard Jackson, who runs a political action committee called Americans for a Brighter Future, which works to get minorities involved in the GOP, said Forbes's strategy will not work. "He has shifted so far to the right," said Jackson, who is advising Bush. "And there's no way that anyone who is considered that far to the right -- whether it's Alan Keyes, or Gary Bauer or Steve Forbes -- is ever going to amass any support in the black community."
CAPTION: Conservative GOP presidential hopeful Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes hopes to remake his image.