Candidate Steve Forbes has something George W. Bush is willing to pay for: the list of subscribers to his magazine.

Forbes has been the Republican front-runner's most bitter critic on the presidential campaign trail, but that hasn't stopped the Texan's advisers from trying to sell his brand of "compassionate conservatism" to the readers of Forbes's "capitalist tool."

Bush's presidential campaign rented the names of 6,000 Forbes subscribers at a cost of $125 per thousand, according to a spokeswoman for the magazine. "I think it's a flattering thing," said the spokeswoman, Elizabeth Ames. "We reach a desirable group."

The Bush fund-raising letter sent to the Forbes readers indirectly addressed the criticisms Forbes and other rivals have lobbed his way, saying, "I know others have criticized compassionate conservatism. That's their right, but what are they saying? That compassion is beneath us? That our party should be led by someone who boasts of a hard heart?" In what might be a bit of heresy for this crowd, the Bush letter also lectured sternly that "prosperity alone is simple materialism. Prosperity must have a greater purpose."

Down in Texas, the word is that they're pleased with the response from the Forbes subscribers. "It's done very well for us," said Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker.

But that doesn't mean Forbes -- or any other GOP candidate, for that matter -- has written off the Forbes readers. Ames said both the Forbes campaign and that of former vice president Dan Quayle also have paid to rent the list this year. In a true capitalist act, the cost to Forbes was the same as that for Bush.

RETURN TO SENDER

Returning money may be a presidential campaign's most unpleasant chore. It goes against all that is sacred in the relentless pursuit of cash, particularly in a millennial campaign season predicted to shatter all fund-raising records. But at times it must be done, for reasons either prosaic (a donor unwittingly gave more than the legal limit) or piquant (a donor carries the unmistakable stench of controversy).

The former, of course, is far more prevalent. But financial reports filed by candidates this month reveal at least a smattering of the latter. Vice President Gore's campaign, for instance, returned a $250 check from aspiring oil pipeline entrepreneur Roger Tamraz, who vaulted to political infamy for his brazen attempts to curry administration favor with huge soft money donations during the 1996 campaign.

Gore also returned a $1,000 check to Bennett Lebow, chairman of Liggett Group Inc. tobacco company. But a search of contributions shows Lebow sent two $1,000 checks to Gore and only one was returned. The campaign also held onto a $1,000 check from Lebow's wife, who also contributed the maximum to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Overall, Gore returned more than $100,000.

Gore's Democratic rival, Bill Bradley, sent back close to $100,000 to individual donors, including $1,000 to Hollywood megadirector Barry Levinson. Why send back so much precious political cash?

"We are beyond vigilant," explained Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser. "We return things that don't look right. Usually it's just a simple mistake" like giving more than the legal limit, forgetting to list an address or omitting an employer's name.

And what about Levinson? Turns out the "Diner" director, intending to give the legal maximum for both himself and his wife, sent a single check for $2,000 to Bradley. But it doesn't work that way. Levinson's wife is free (and encouraged) to contribute on her own, Hauser said, but she has to send a separate check.

McCain returned $27,825 in individual contributions, including $500 to Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under President George Bush. Why? The campaign offered no explanation. For the record, Scowcroft also gave $1,000 to Bush's eldest son. Bush also returned more than $100,000 in contributions.

QUOTABLE

Hillary Rodham Clinton, talking to reporters in New York on Friday about running for the Senate: "I'm very committed to following through on this. It's the only thing I'm interested in, and I'm getting more interested and excited about it every day."

Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.