Leaking nasty rumors about the other guy is a time-honored campaign tradition, of course, but what's a candidate to do if he's innocent as charged? How can he prove that he didn't do it, honest? That's Steve Forbes' dilemma.
Next to George W. Bush himself, Forbes is the GOP candidate who has been most hurt to date by the drug-use controversy swirling around the Republican front-runner. That's because of the open speculation, fueled by the Bush organization itself, that it is the Forbes camp that has helped spread the rumors of "W's" cocaine use.
Forbes might have anticipated the heat. In 1996, he was roundly criticized for running an extremely negative campaign against Bob Dole, and there is some evidence that he has been test-polling a similar approach this time around against Bush.
It was hardly surprising, then, that over the past week two prominent Bush supporters -- Mary Matalin and Ralph Reed -- and media critic Larry Sabato appeared on various network talk shows blaming Forbes and, to a lesser extent, conservative Gary Bauer for spreading the story.
The accusations started flying when Sabato appeared on CNN's "Inside Politics." "Everyone knows that this is coming from certain other Republican campaigns that are trying mightily to get the press to push George Bush on this particular question," Sabato spouted.
"Wait a minute," host Bernard Shaw interrupted. "Larry, I did not know that. Which campaigns? Which campaigns in the Republican Party are pushing this on reporters to make G.W. Bush look bad?"
"I've been told by reporters -- I haven't talked to the campaigns myself because that's not my job," Sabato asserted. "I've been told by the reporters that some people within the Forbes campaign and the Bauer campaign, among others, have been asking these questions or encouraging the press to investigate this pattern."
Out at Forbes headquarters, aides watching the program scrambled into damage-control mode. Their response was swift and direct. Campaign manager Bill Dal Col and spokesman Greg Mueller quickly issued a statement and faxed it to Shaw, who then read it on the air before the last segment of his show:
This reaction from Steve Forbes' campaign and spokesman Greg Mueller and we quote, "We emphatically deny that anyone on the Forbes campaign has initiated a conversation with any reporter about the issue of Bush's drug use. We are in no way engaged in pushing this drug story."
A day later on CNN's "Crossfire," Forbes added his personal vehement denial of any role in fomenting the rumors and furthermore pledged to fire anyone on his staff who trashes an opponent -- on or off the record.
Watching all this, I believed the Forbes camp, and here's why. Like just about every other journalist in Washington, I have been floating a few of these "cocaine questions" to sources in all the various political camps, Republican and Democratic alike. Most are quite willing to entertain the questions, to offer up additional rumors they've heard about Bush's "youthful indiscretions" and even to provide tips on how to pin them down.
Everyone, that is, except those in the Forbes campaign.
It's not that the Forbes staffers are unhappy to see the cocaine question play itself out, mind you. But whenever I have broached the subject with them, their response has always been the same: "We're under strict orders not to talk about it in the office, not to talk about it outside of the office, not to talk about it with reporters, not to look for anything."
Nevertheless, folks inside Bush's embattled camp continued to suspect the worst of their well-funded opponent. "Have you surveyed national reporters?" Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker asked me. "They're all telling us this is coming from the Forbes campaign. Where else can it be coming from? It's certainly not coming from the governor's friends."
Tucker did not seem concerned that she now was the one trashing Forbes.
"They're doing exactly what they're accusing us of doing," fumed Forbes spokesman Mueller in response. "These are typical actions of a candidate who's in the kitchen and feeling the heat."
At this point, the sniping back and forth was getting absurd. But I went back and asked Tucker exactly what the Forbes camp was allegedly telling reporters, since they weren't telling me anything at all. "To continue questioning us on this," was all she could reply.
The silliness of this bickering aside, the real question, of course, remains not who is spreading these rumors about Bush, but whether they are true.
And for the Forbes camp, even though it seems they are not the source this time around, you can't help noting that what goes around, comes around -- even if it is four years later.