Texas Gov. George W. Bush no longer sees Steve Forbes as a threat to winning the Republican presidential nomination and is preparing to fight in key primary states with a strategy that seeks to avoid direct confrontation with his GOP opponents.

Aides said the Bush campaign will spend tens of millions of dollars to spread his message in the nine early states that will hold contests in January and February, plus California, whose primary is set for March 7. The idea is to ensure that none of Bush's opponents--who because of financial limitations are concentrating their efforts on one or two states--sneaks up on Bush and gains momentum with a win in an early state.

Bush's strategy was on display yesterday when, despite stepped-up calls this week by rivals Gary Bauer and Forbes to debate, Bush continued to resist appearing on the same stage with his opponents until a Jan. 15 debate in Iowa.

"I'm going to run a campaign to make you proud," Bush said before several thousand people at the Christian Coalition meeting here. "I'm going to reject these negative politics that so often has dominated the landscape of American politics. I have too many positive things to say about why I'm running."

Lines such as these, Bush's staffers say, give the Texas governor the moral high ground against anticipated attacks from frustrated opponents. They also reflect the tactical advantage of his huge fund-raising: If attacked, Bush has the resources to overwhelm opponents on the airwaves, not by attacking back but by inundating voters with his "optimistic and positive" message.

The only candidate with the financial resources to mount a national challenge to Bush, the millionaire publisher Forbes, has not shown that he can translate his money into a credible campaign, Bush advisers have concluded. Instead, the biggest concern in Austin is Patrick J. Buchanan, who could siphon some of Bush's conservative support in next year's general election if he bolts to the Reform Party.

But before that, Bush must win the GOP nomination. And central to his strategy is the resolve not to let happen to him what happened to Robert J. Dole in 1996, when Forbes used his considerable wealth to finance a series of damaging ads targeting Dole in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Unlike Dole, Bush will have the money to respond. In 1996, Forbes spent about $25 million on television and radio, several times what Dole spent in the nominating contests. Bush campaign officials would not discuss how much they plan to spend, but vowed that they would not be outdone by Forbes or anyone else. "We have a plan in place; we have a time line," said Bush media consultant Mark McKinnon. "We are prepared for any contingencies. We're locked. We're loaded. We're ready."

Bush still dominates national polls, with more than 50 percent support in most. But the Forbes campaign and others make the argument that in the early primary and caucus states, where voters are paying more attention, Bush is more vulnerable and the polls are closer.

"Right now, they are running the right campaign for their kind of candidate," said Forbes campaign manager, Bill Dal Col. "Keep him in the bubble, limit exposure to press questions and shun debates, because they have a candidate who appears to not have the intellectual firepower or the maturity level in certain situations to deal with the give-and-take of a campaign."

The Forbes campaign said its candidate is right where he should be, positioning himself as the conservative alternative to Bush in a shrinking GOP field.

Dan Schnur, campaign spokesman for Sen. John McCain, said the Arizona Republican also is well positioned. "Our goal is to have raised between 15 and 20 million dollars by the end of the year," Schnur said. "That's going to allow our campaign to spend the maximum in New Hampshire and South Carolina, which makes the playing field in those states much more competitive."

In the meantime, Bush has been virtually ignoring his GOP opponents. He skipped last weekend's California Republican convention to attend the Ryder Cup golf tournament near Boston, infuriating Forbes, who accused him of ducking the competition. Campaign aides explained that Bush would visit California the following week and that he had promised his friend Ben Crenshaw that he would come see him play golf. "Loyalty is a big thing with Governor Bush," said Bush spokesman Andrew Malcolm.

As for Forbes's charge, Malcolm responded: "We're not running against any other candidate. We're running with George Bush's positive message."

Forbes, because of his money, had once concerned the Bush campaign the most. But in recent interviews, Bush advisers suggested that Forbes has squandered the one natural advantage he has--the ability to use his money to run television and radio ads in crucial primary and caucus states when no other candidate can afford to do so.

Earlier this summer, Forbes launched what his campaign described as a major television and radio ad blitz. Forbes's aides said at the time that he would spend about $10 million.

But Bush advisers have noted gleefully that Forbes spent only about one third of that--and got little result. They noted that in one poll, Forbes's negative rating in New Hampshire increased after he went on the air with a series of positive ads in June. Several other polls have shown slight improvements for Forbes in New Hampshire, including one that had him moving from 6 percent to 10 percent since May.

So far, Dal Col said, Forbes has spent about $20 million, with a vast chunk of it going to grass-roots organizing rather than to television and radio. That support on the ground will bolster Forbes's advertising efforts this fall, he said.

"They are hoping and trying to figure out what we're doing, and they're frustrated because they haven't done that," said Dal Col. "We haven't run any ads in the last couple weeks because our numbers are trending perfectly."

But one Bush campaign official dismissed the Forbes strategy. "I feel less worried about that now," he said, adding that "if [Forbes] does decide to go thermonuclear, we're sitting on [millions of dollars]."