Whoever said there's no such thing as a free lunch hasn't been wooed by the Forbes campaign.

The 60-some souls gathered at City Hall here have their choice of turkey or ham sandwiches, with chips, cookies and sodas. There's plenty to feed them twice over. After the speech, everyone gets a free copy of millionaire publisher Steve Forbes's new book ($17.95 retail). Then comes the free long-sleeve Forbes 2000 T-shirt. The Forbes team is as smooth as the candidate is awkward.

At each event, they stuff sign-up cards into scores of free books, and unbundle crates of shirts. Meanwhile, the Hy Vee grocery chain caters one meal after another. At 9 a.m. in Le Mars, it's dozens and dozens of the biggest doughnuts you've ever seen. A choice of chili or chicken stew at suppertime in Sheldon, with rolls and cookies--enough to bloat a multitude. More cookies, heaping piles, at an evening meeting in Spencer.

Will these well-fed, well-read, well-clad troops give Forbes the surprise he needs on Monday night--a surging second place in the Iowa caucuses? "I think it's going very well," the candidate says as he barnstorms through the northwest corner of the state. People are turning out, he notes, and "not because of charisma, not because of a bandwagon."

It's make-or-break time for Forbes and his four-year, $70 million effort to become the first civilian outsider ever elected to the White House. Iowa is his gold-plated springboard. If he doesn't get a bounce here, polls suggest he won't be a factor in New Hampshire eight days later, and then he might quickly run out of time.

The closer he gets, the more enigmatic his effort becomes. Forbes has traded his old friends in the world of conservative fiscal policy for new allies in the antiabortion movement. But do they love him or his money? He has put together a rich, strong organization here and around the country to little avail in the national polls. He is a long-long-long shot for president running the glitziest grass-roots campaign in Iowa history.

The heir from the New Jersey estates is marching his loafers into meetings from one end of Iowa to the other, offering "a new birth of freedom"--freedom from the IRS, from government health insurance, from public schools and Federal Reserve interest rate hikes. "I am the true conservative in this race," he tells each audience. "The special interests have no hooks in me. I can be independent."

Forbes is also talking about "the freedom to be born." Abortion is key to a significant number of Iowa Republicans, and they resent efforts by the national party establishment--and its pet candidate, George W. Bush--to muffle the issue. Forbes tried to ignore the subject in 1996, but now he has taken every pledge a social conservative could demand: to appoint only judges who'll oppose Roe v. Wade, to name an antiabortion running mate, to veto every penny of federal abortion funding, and more.

That's why, as Forbes is speaking to the citizens of Orange City, Phyllis Schlafly, scourge of the Equal Rights Amendment, click-clicks into the room on her high heels to bolster his campaign.

"This year all the Republican candidates say they're pro-life," she tells the group. "But that's not enough. We have to know whether they really mean it." Schlafly is in Iowa to bestow on Forbes the closest thing to an endorsement a tax-exempt activist is allowed to give.

Her frantic rush from a fog-delayed airplane to a brown-bag lunch on the remote high prairie is a kind of consummation for Forbes of a long courtship. One might imagine Schlafly toiling for Gary Bauer, whose social conservative resume goes back decades. Instead, she denounces Bauer for circulating an anti-Forbes quote of hers from 1996.

A cadre of true-blue social conservatives--including Paul Weyrich, Brent Bozell and Richard Viguerie--have taken the same step, and the deciding factor, according to Weyrich, is money. Only Forbes has enough to keep up with Bush.

Much of Forbes's fate here hinges on whether caucus-goers make the same calculation. Strong turnouts for Bauer and for another ardent abortion foe, Alan Keyes, would eat into the anti-Bush vote. In Orange City, at least, there remains some skepticism about the Forbes conversion.

"Last time I don't remember that he was pro-life at all," says Terry Dykstra, who runs a local excavation business. "Like Phyllis Schlafly said, a lot of people have figured out you have to be pro-life to win the nomination. I still wonder if that's why he's changed."

Polls are a notoriously poor predictor of the arcane caucuses. (A survey of Iowa Republicans published today in the Los Angeles Times found Bush ahead of Forbes 43 percent to 25 percent.) There is always a surprise, as former Iowa GOP chairman Steve Grubbs reminds every Forbes gathering. An unexpectedly strong finish by George Bush in 1980. Pat Robertson's stunning runner-up performance in 1988. Pat Buchanan's near-win in 1996. What Grubbs does not say: All eventually failed to win the nomination that year.

"We're gonna be the surprise on Monday," Forbes predicts. "The difference with us is that we're organized in all the subsequent states. We're organized in New Hampshire, in Delaware, which I won in '96, in South Carolina. We're ready to fight beyond South Carolina--in Arizona, which I won last time, in Michigan, in Washington."

We're chatting aboard the Forbes bus, rolling through a yellow-brown world of corn stubble.

Check that: We're aboard the FIRST Steve Forbes bus. He has two hulking motor coaches out here on the itty-bitty roads of Iowa, the roads you have to squint to see on a map. He also has some vans and chase cars. It's a sort of Potemkin motorcade, as there are no more than 20 people in the entire entourage.

We're aboard the bus with the satellite phone, the on-board fax machine and the hostess. The candidate emerges from a private compartment for a quarter-hour interview. Forbes strikes a lot of people as stiff, but he seems reasonably relaxed now--at least briefly. The moment the allotted time expires, the entire motorcade pulls to the side of the road and the reporter is returned to his rental car for the remaining nine-minute drive to the next event.

This campaign has cost Forbes more than money. The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, once in love with his supply-side fervor, now defends Texas Gov. Bush against Forbes's attacks. "They were invited to kiss the ring in Austin," Forbes says with a thin smile. "I'll forgive them. . . . It's called, 'We want a place at the table.' "

It's an odd sacrifice, because monetary policy clearly remains the subject closest to his heart. Even with Schlafly as a warm-up act, at meetings in Sheldon and Spencer, Forbes gives abortion only a sentence or two in his stump speech. And many people in the crowds he sees on this particular day--about 500 at four small-town events--are low-taxers who wouldn't mind if he said even less.

It seems Forbes has come to enjoy running for president. He shakes hands much more eagerly than four years ago. Applause lights him up like a shy kid at Christmas. He has mastered local issues, right down to the near-religious significance of high school wrestling in Iowa. In the chill night air outside his last stop on a long day, two admirers agree it's a shame he's not better at this thing he enjoys.

"I love the flat tax," says William Follows, a surgeon from Spencer. "But I was at the Clay County Fair this year, and I met George W. Bush, and let me tell you, he is one impressive campaigner. He looks you in the eye, throws his arm over your shoulder, whispers in your ear. I was thrilled."

Jeanne Salmon nodded. "That's the sad part. Forbes has the message, but the other guy has the charisma."