In an early eruption over the presidential air wars, Steve Forbes yesterday called on George W. Bush to pull his first television spot, saying the Texas governor has boosted state spending far more than he claims.

Calling the ad "clearly misleading," Ken Blackwell, Forbes's campaign chairman, said Bush's spending record is "more of a Clintonian record than conservative. In fact, George Bush makes Bill Clinton look like a fiscal conservative." He said Bush should either fix the commercial or yank it.

Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker replied that "this misleading attack says more about Steve Forbes than it does Governor Bush. Republican voters will reject this effort to mislead voters and distort the facts, just as they did when Forbes relied on the same negative tactics in 1996."

The Bush ad, one of four airing in Iowa and New Hampshire, contends that he has reduced the growth of state spending to the lowest level in 40 years. But figures show that since taking office in 1995, Bush has boosted the two-year Texas budget from $72.8 billion to $98.1 billion.

Bush campaign aides, after changing their explanation once, said "real per capita" state spending has increased just 2.7 percent--but only after discounting inflation, population growth and property tax relief, none of which is mentioned in the ad. Even excluding those factors, they say Bush has delivered the smallest increase since 1960 (although property tax relief was not subtracted from previous budgets, only Bush's). The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman put the budget hike at 36 percent.

The Bush-Forbes sniping is part of a larger skirmish over advertising strategy between the two candidates with the fattest wallets and no spending restrictions, since both have declined to accept federal funding. Bush has raised a record $57 million, while Forbes is tapping into his personal publishing fortune.

Bush campaign aides have been warning for months that that they expect Forbes to launch negative attacks against their man. Such talk is intended to discredit in advance any aggressive advertising by Forbes. The conservative publisher has aired only positive spots thus far.

"People tend to forget that when Forbes says he's not going to run negative ads, he's already polled negative messages against us," Tucker said, recalling a charge by a Bush supporter in Iowa that the Forbes camp tested possible lines of attack against her candidate during a telephone poll. "We are hoping that he will keep his word and not engage in negative attacks and misleading misrepresentations of Governor Bush's record."

The Forbes camp has insisted just as vehemently that it plans only high-road, issue-oriented advertising. But Forbes spokesman Greg Mueller welcomed the other side's pregame spin. "We're enjoying every minute of it," he said. "The Bush people are continuing to build anticipation for our ads. I invite them to continue sounding the alarms."

In 1996, Forbes wounded eventual nominee Robert J. Dole with a massive television blitz but suffered a severe backlash. In one New Hampshire poll, 43 percent of GOP primary voters said they would never vote for Forbes, with half blaming his campaign's negative tone. Forbes halted his negative ads after doing poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire, saying, "I regret having spent so much time discussing my opponents."

A possible beneficiary of a Bush-Forbes shootout is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has far less money for ads. "If there's a negative and nasty personal campaign waged between two of our opponents, we'll continue to maintain our position as the one who's not involved in that," said McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky.

McCain yesterday charged the Bush campaign with "personal attacks" in an effort to tie Bush to a New York Times story that portrayed the senator as struggling in Arizona and included critical comments from Arizona Gov. Jane Hull, a Bush backer. Both Hull and Bush aides dismissed the claim as unfounded.