Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes plans a massive advertising campaign against Texas Gov. George W. Bush beginning in early November, but senior advisers say it will not resemble the sharply negative ads he used to pummel Robert J. Dole in the 1996 Republican primaries.
Apparently stung by reports that the Bush campaign has downgraded Forbes as a threat to the Texas governor's candidacy, Forbes campaign officials responded that they are prepared to spend even more than the roughly $23 million spent in the 1996 primaries on television advertising.
But after warnings from party leaders and elected officials that a rerun of the tactics used against Dole would bring a sharp rebuke that could destroy Forbes's credibility, the Forbes campaign has decided on a different approach.
This year, Forbes likely will appear on camera and may praise Bush personally while challenging Bush's record on taxes, spending and education and suggesting that the Texas governor lacks the intellectual heft to be president.
"If we ran the same kind of ads we ran in 1996, that would be a disaster," a Forbes campaign official said. "The fourth estate [the press] would say, 'There goes Forbes again,' and the Republican establishment would echo the fourth estate."
The official said that by "being direct" but doing it "in a nice way," Forbes hopes "to get the same result" as in 1996--when Forbes's ads damaged Dole in such early caucus and primary states as Iowa, New Hampshire and Arizona--without creating a backlash against Forbes.
Only Forbes, because of his personal wealth, has the financial resources to compete on television against Bush, whose campaign has broken all records for fund-raising in presidential primaries.
For that reason, the Bush campaign has been almost obsessed with Forbes's candidacy, fearing that a repeat of the tactics used against Dole would damage Bush's standing with voters and deplete the campaign financially.
Bush campaign officials anticipated a barrage of negative Forbes ads beginning in September and in the absence of such an attack concluded that Forbes was squandering his most valuable asset: the ability to run a sustained, negative campaign against the GOP front-runner. They also estimate that Forbes spent only about $3.5 million on television ads over the summer, far less than the $10 million Forbes officials had claimed they would spend. That has led Bush officials to surmise that Forbes may be less willing to spend so freely in this campaign.
But a Forbes official said his campaign refused to play into the hands of Bush and other GOP candidates, who hope to profit by a Forbes-Bush ad war. Four years ago, he said, the Forbes attacks on Dole helped Lamar Alexander and Patrick J. Buchanan.
This time, he said, Forbes will "pick and choose" when to engage Bush and will time the campaign to inflict maximum damage on Bush without elevating Arizona Sen. John McCain or Elizabeth Dole.
"They're trying to bait us to get our strategy out earlier so they have recovery time," the official said of the Bush campaign. "If we hit him now, he has the resources to come back. If we hit him at the right time, he'll be reeling and won't have recovery time. We have to be able to do it so that the McCain and Dole campaigns don't benefit."
Forbes strategists have identified several areas for attack that he hopes will rally GOP conservatives. One is the increase in state spending during Bush's tenure as governor, which a Forbes official said outpaces federal spending increases under President Clinton.
Second, Forbes plans to attack Bush on taxes, claiming that the big tax cuts enacted while Bush has been governor are "illusionary" and that Bush's 1997 tax plan, defeated by the legislature, would have raised a variety of taxes.
Forbes also plans to go after Bush on education, the governor's top priority and an issue he has used to his benefit as a candidate. Forbes, said a campaign official, will question whether the schoolchildren of Texas have advanced as much as Bush claims and echo conservative critics in Texas who say Bush has allied himself with state school board officials who have opposed more parental involvement in curriculum and other school decisions.