Steve Forbes finds religion

His Christian Coalition appearance marks him as the leading conservative rival to George W. Bush.

Published October 4, 1999 9:00AM (EDT)

Two gay men and their lesbian friend were eating Ben & Jerry's ice cream pops in the Steve Forbes family picnic area at the annual Christian Coalition convention Saturday.

"We're from the neighborhood," explained Daniel Quinn, 38, a clinical social worker who lives just blocks from the Hilton Hotel, where the convention was held, in D.C.'s gay-friendly Dupont Circle neighborhood. "The neighborhood where Steve Forbes' father used to hang out," Quinn went on, adding that the late, since-outed publisher Malcolm Forbes would routinely pop into a local hot spot called the Eagle, a gay leather bar.

Quinn and his partner, Robert McRuer, 33, a gay-studies professor at George Washington University, and Cheryl Court, 34, popped in Saturday to raise some eyebrows, make a statement and get a giggle over the annual religious right confab. "Even though we're not welcome in their hometowns, they're more than welcome in ours," said McRuer.

Not surprisingly, the three said, a few convention attendees approached the flamingly dressed trio (one of their shirts was emblazoned with "GAY" in Gap-style font) and urged them to "change" to heterosexuality.

"I was like, 'You can change, too,'" said McRuer. "'That style went out in '84!'"

Court pointed out that she has changed -- she was once not only straight, but a married fundamentalist Christian. Quinn seconded that, adding that he was once a Franciscan monk. "So we understand these people," he said.

Steve Forbes, the son of one of Quinn and McRuer's former bar mates, is desperately trying to understand "these people," too. And it looks like he's having some success.

In a well-received speech to the convention on Saturday, Forbes bashed Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura for his comments in this month's Playboy magazine interview, in which he said that "organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people."

"Bullies end up belittling themselves," Forbes said. "It makes you wonder if organized wrestling should require wrestlers in the future to wear protective helmets."

The crowd loved it.

"It was people of faith who founded this country," Forbes said. "George Washington said that 'It is impossible to account for the creation of the universe without a Supreme Being. And it is impossible to govern ... without the aide of a Supreme Being.'

"Take that, Jesse," he added, much to the crowd's delight.

But Ventura was just target practice; Forbes' rhetorical sights were locked on front-running Texas Gov. George W. Bush, whom he derided as another weak-kneed moderate Republican without a foundation of principle. "We don't have to settle for mush," Forbes said. "If you don't know where you're going, every road can take you there."

Calling for a series of five debates with Bush and the other Republican presidential prospects, Forbes lit into the Texas governor by throwing red meat to the ravenous crowd. Bush "wanted troops in Kosovo," Forbes said, while he opposed the NATO campaign. Bush "believes in business as usual in Communist China," while Forbes doesn't.

Bush wants more federal control of schools; Forbes wants less. Bush has no pro-life litmus test for judges; Forbes hands out fliers that say "If you don't respect this child, you won't wear this robe." Bush won't promise that he'll only select a pro-life running mate, Forbes makes that promise again and again and again.

In addition to new religious-right whipping boy Jesse "The Mouth" Ventura, Forbes bashed more traditional New World Order touchstones like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund.

Forbes' newfound Christian voice is clearly finding an audience. But it remains to be seen whether it will make him anything other than a bridesmaid to Bush's bride.

A Mason-Dixon poll conducted at the end of September had Forbes holding steady with 22 percent support among likely Republican Iowa caucus voters. Bush, on the other hand, shot up from 21 percent in July to 41 points in September.

Forbes has probably benefited from his markedly improved delivery on the stump. Though his speaking is still somewhat stiff, it is much better than just a few months ago -- which is only to say that he finally seems like an actual carbon-based life form.

But even his stiffness is a distinction that could serve to distinguish him from the ranks of his GOP opponents. Voters may find something quirkily engaging in an old-school way about the oddball gazillionaire.

Saturday's convention attendees certainly did, giving him a standing ovation and chanting "Go, Steve, Go! Go, Steve, Go!" It provided quite a contrast to their modest reaction to Elizabeth Dole, for instance -- not to mention the disdain many attendees voiced about the no-show by Pat Buchanan.

Forbes still has to cope with media cynicism about the timing of his "conversion" from relative moderation to religious conservatism -- and about some Christian leaders' embrace of this former moderate turned deep-pocketed Christian standard bearer. But at the convention, Forbes continued to cement his standing as a contender whose strength isn't entirely located in his $450 million fortune. On the stump, he came across as a man of conservative conviction -- especially compared with Bush, whom many conservatives eye warily.

Forbes supporters insist that their man was always a devout conservative, and that he stuck to his one-issue "flat tax" mantra during his '96 campaign because "he could only break through the noise by getting behind one issue," according to Forbes spokesman Keith Appell. But a powerful profile by John B. Judis in July's GQ reflected media skepticism that the free-marketeer gives a good goddamn about religion.

Judis wrote that he was "convinced that at bottom [Forbes] doesn't share the religious right's conviction that abortion is outright murder and that he is simply currying its favor to win votes in the upcoming primaries and caucuses."

The truth, one Forbes insider says, is somewhat more layered.

"I don't think he's had a change in heart on the issues, I just think he's had a change in priorities," says the Forbes insider. "He was always pro-life, but now he's out saying he'd protect life first and foremost, even before the flat tax, and that is definitely a change in priorities. Sure, there's an element of pandering in that. But in '96 Steve underestimated conservative voters in Iowa and South Carolina and their commitment to pro-life issues."

The Forbes insider points out that Forbes' public coming-out party on his new attitude was at the Christian Coalition's convention in '97. "In September 1997, he gave a wonderful speech about how important it was to protect life," the insider says, "and he got seven standing ovations." (Interestingly, current Bush speechwriter Mike Gerson wrote that '97 speech for Forbes.)

So it's not that Forbes is betraying any fundamental belief, the insider says; it's just that he's adjusting the importance he previously assigned his pro-life stance. "I'm pro-life," the insider says. "I would never have worked for him in '96 if he hadn't been."

Out in the hinterlands of the GOP primaries and caucuses, Forbes has assiduously been courting members of the religious right -- not only by articulating unequivocal stances on their issues, but also through his organization. In Iowa, for instance, the Forbes campaign's two "organizational specialists" are Nancy Streck, an established pro-life activist, and Steve Scheffler, the former executive director of the Iowa Christian Coalition.

And at the convention, many pro-lifers seemed convinced. While Forbes didn't get seven standing o's this time around, many attendees looking for a conservative alternative to Bush had tagged Forbes as their man.

Despite praise for Forbes, Coalition founder Pat Robertson seemed to give tacit support to Bush. "So far, George Bush [has] said things that have led me to believe he would be worthy of the support of the coalition were he the nominee of the party," Robertson said at a Friday press conference.

Forbes "would have a much better chance ... had he been a governor of a state, held some office," Robertson said.

Still, Robertson had nothing but kind words for Forbes -- even though the candidate once referred to Robertson as a "toothy flake" in a 1988 column in Forbes magazine. (He has since apologized.) Robertson's benign remarks led many to believe he sees Forbes as the only conservative alternative to Bush.

Robertson wasn't nearly as nice in his comments about presidential candidate and longtime Christian activist Gary Bauer, who held a press conference last week to deny little-reported rumors that he had an inappropriate relationship with an aide in her mid-20s. Before Bauer spoke at the Coalition convention on Friday, Robertson told reporters about the "three rules" of pastoral conduct: "One, never be alone in a room with a woman not your wife. No. 2, never be alone in a room with a woman not your wife, and No. 3, never be alone in a room with a woman not your wife."

With Robertson symbolically brushing Bauer aside as if he were a pesky mosquito, his flock was that much more receptive to Forbes, who was the convention's final speaker.

Forbes 2000 muckety-mucks dismiss questions about whether now-courted Christians ever ask about the "toothy flake" comment. "No one ever asks about that except for reporters," insists campaign manager Bill Dal Col. "That was in 1988, in the heat of a campaign where Steve was supporting Jack Kemp."

"I thought you were writing a story about 'current events,'" joked spokeswoman Lisa Kruska.

But even if Forbes' change of heart is real, it's still remarkable that he has embraced a movement that would have opposed equal rights for his flamboyant father as well as the gay and lesbian picnic-crashers like Quinn, McRuer and Court. Though I pushed campaign manager Dal Col about the contradiction, he brushed aside my question.

"Steve's father's been dead for 10 years," he noted.

And a lot of things can change in 10 years, apparently.

A Franciscan monk can become a gay social worker.

A fundamentalist Christian housewife can become a lesbian activist.

And Steve Forbes can find religion.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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2000 Elections Abortion Religion Republican Party