Just about everyone in the Republican presidential campaign has been waiting for Steve Forbes to use his considerable fortune to pound George W. Bush with negative ads.
Indeed, Forbes's campaign manager, Bill Dal Col, is taking aim at what he bluntly calls "the empty suit question" about Bush.
"The seed has been planted and the tree's growing that his intellectual capability and maturity level are open to serious question," Dal Col said. "Our strategy will be built off that."
But that strategy, contrary to expectations, will not include attack ads. While Forbes will greatly boost his advertising spending in January, Dal Col and William Eisner, the candidate's media adviser, say they do not plan a frontal assault on the GOP front-runner. Instead, they will push the wealthy publisher's positions on such issues as Social Security and tax cuts, anticipating that reporters will draw the contrast with Bush's stance.
In the process, they will pursue another important goal: making the candidate seem more likable and approachable.
In one of two new ads that will begin airing Monday in Iowa and New Hampshire, several voters say they don't want Washington messing with their Social Security. "My goal is to create a new Social Security system where you control your retirement account, not the politicians or bureaucrats," Forbes says.
A new radio ad is more direct, quoting the Manchester Union Leader and columnist Robert Novak ("Bush is alone among Republican candidates in disavowing tax reform") slamming the Texas governor's tax proposals.
Dal Col contended that this is not an attack ad because Forbes himself does not level the charges. "You've got third parties--credible, independent media--stating what's wrong," he said. "There's a huge difference. . . . You use the [ads] to use the press to help create the comparison."
If this seems like a restrained approach for a candidate trailing badly in the polls, it reflects a decision by Forbes and his brain trust that they blundered in 1996 by showering front-runner Robert J. Dole with negative ads. Forbes spent $22.6 million on advertising in that campaign, and Dal Col can still recite some of the tag lines: "Bob Dole: Washington values. Steve Forbes: Conservative values."
Eisner called those ads "formulaic" and "not very good," saying: "The reason I'm here is they don't want to do it the way they did in '96. We want to stick with the issues, not negative comparisons."
Forbes has spent nearly $5 million on ads so far, to little visible effect; Bush aides say they have spent somewhat less. While the Forbes camp says the spots have boosted their man's favorability ratings, Forbes still trails Bush 53 percent to 16 percent among likely Iowa caucus-goers, according to one recent poll. Among likely New Hampshire GOP voters, a Washington Post-ABC survey has John McCain at 40 percent, Bush at 39 percent and Forbes at 10 percent.
Despite Forbes's "apparently unlimited wallet," said Bush strategist Karl Rove, "his stature has not grown in Iowa and New Hampshire." Still, Bush aides say they decided to pass up federal matching funds--which freed them from any spending limits--largely so they could keep pace with any Forbes ad blitz.
Forbes's checkbook has always rendered him something of a wild card in the 2000 race. Yet the campaign's image-makers freely admit that their challenge is to present the candidate, whom no one would call a natural politician, as a plausible president.
The main task falls to Eisner, head of a Milwaukee advertising agency that has done mainly corporate work for such clients as Harley Davidson Adventure Tours, Golden Books, Mrs. Paul's Frozen Foods and Mama Celeste Pizza. He did no political ads until four years ago, when he helped a neighbor win a circuit court judgeship; later, he helped GOP challenger Mark Neumann in a close race against Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.).
Eisner is well aware that detractors use "the G-word"--meaning geek--to describe Forbes.
"People say Steve's a little robotic, he's a little stiff," Eisner said. "But he's not capable of putting one over on people by becoming a chameleon. . . . Exposure over time helps people understand why Steve is likable, given the personality that he is. When you're exposed to Steve, you get past the physical first impression."
In the first round of ads, Eisner sought to portray Forbes as presidential by placing him in the Hay-Adams Hotel, with the White House visible from across the street.
The next time around, Eisner spent all day at Milwaukee's Little Cafe diner, which served breakfast, lunch and dinner to customers who stuck around to chat with Forbes. The black-and-white ads, shot with handheld cameras, were culled from hours of discussions about the flat tax and privatizing Social Security. The admaker was so concerned that Forbes seem natural that he taped him in thick-lensed glasses because the candidate doesn't feel comfortable wearing contacts.
"When we've gotten into a mode of 'let's try to script him,' he goes into a mode of what's expected and the real Steve doesn't come out," Eisner said. "People want someone in the office of president they believe they can relate to." The goal with the multimillionaire candidate, said Eisner, is "helping people understand how much he is like them."
The Bush team isn't taking any chances; it has already taped counterattack spots to respond to possible Forbes ads castigating the governor's record.
"It's to his credit that he's resisted the temptation to run a strictly negative campaign, which only hurt him [in 1996] and ended up hurting Republicans' chances to win," said Stuart Stevens, a Bush media adviser.
Dal Col says Forbes is determined not to take a "slash-and-burn" approach and that the campaign has not followed the customary practice of keeping negative ads in reserve.
"There is a tune-out factor for a lot of people," he said. "They have been bombarded with so much negative stuff in the last couple of campaigns."
CAPTION: Adviser William Eisner, left, confers with Steve Forbes in Milwaukee. "We want to stick with the issues," Eisner says.