Surging with Steve

Forget John McCain and Bill Bradley. On the heels of his strong showing in Iowa, Steve Forbes is the fast-rising insurgent.


Susan Crabtree
February 1, 2000 5:30PM (UTC)

Since Steve Forbes' second-place finish at the Iowa caucus, he has displayed a far more gregarious side -- he's flaunted an irrepressible smile as he tromped through New Hampshire -- with his standing in polls for the state's primary running between 10 and 16 percent and the ringing endorsement of the Manchester Union Leader newspaper.

After Iowa, Forbes quickly shot a television ad trumpeting his campaign's new momentum. The spot, called "Surging," shows an ebullient Forbes standing before a crowd of Iowa supporters after the better than expected results were announced. "This is not a good night for the powerbrokers in Washington, D.C.," he tells viewers. "We broke the political rules."

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Forbes may be feeling a little smug these days, but he's earned it. In one night, the longshot candidate for president managed to debunk nearly a year of inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom that had all but declared his candidacy dead on arrival. Washington insiders thought there was no way someone so stiff and awkward on the stump could give the photogenic, good-ol'-boy-establishment-Republican candidate from Texas a run for his money. But in Iowa, Forbes did just that.

His show of strength -- 30 percent to Bush's 41 percent -- clearly agitated the Texas governor's supporters on Capitol Hill, who were quick to mobilize their defenses. The day after the caucus, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott took aim at Forbes, saying that even far-right radio host Alan Keyes had a better resume for the presidency.

However brief Forbes' Iowa surge may be, his second place finish gave his campaign a much-needed boost and forced many of his detractors to stand up and take notice. Regardless of his performance in New Hampshire, Forbes could slow the Bush juggernaut in the months to come, not as a chief rival for the nomination, but possibly as chief distraction. With his personal war chest, Forbes will be able to sling arrows long after any other candidates have given up and gone home.

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For a while, it didn't look like Forbes could build any momentum at all. Since announcing he would run last year last year, reporters have scrutinized Forbes' looks, his wealth and his stilted personality as much as his policy positions. They've obsessed about Forbes' face peels, straightened hair, nervous tics and even how often he blinks his eyes (once every 15 seconds, according to the Washington Post).

But for the considerable number of conservatives who seethe at the mere mention of Bill Clinton's affability and slick spin control, Forbes' clumsiness, made-for-radio looks and laconic style are his biggest assets.

The closest Forbes comes to sharing his life story on the stump is when he evokes the name of his grandfather, B.C. Forbes. Life for the Forbes family, according to the tale, wasn't always full of yacht parties, executive suites and trips to a family-owned island in Fiji. Before the Great Depression, his Scottish immigrant grandfather almost had to sell the fabled, but then-struggling business magazine he had built from the ground up to the predatory hands of William Randolph Hearst. But B.C. managed to corral his resources and save the family magazine for future generations.

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It's your classic bootstrap story, but it still provides some insight into the family's self-made riches and Forbes' capitalist philosophy on life. As a child, Malcolm "Steve" Forbes Jr. had to contend with a flamboyant father and his exaggerated lifestyle. High-flying Malcolm Sr. had a jet he dubbed the Capitalist Tool and was known for his lavish parties and frequent jet-setting trips to his French chateau and Moroccan castle. Malcolm waded into New Jersey politics with the same bravado, running unsuccessfully for governor of New Jersey twice.

If Steve Forbes disagreed with his father's lifestyle, he's never said so publicly. His brother once famously noted that "Steve didn't experience adolescent rebellion." But in many ways, the relatively modest way Forbes leads his life reads like a complete rejection of his father's excesses. He still, for example, drives a Ford station wagon; he's been known to frequent the fast food chain, Friendly's, and the home he shares with his wife Sabina and teenage daughters is worth a paltry $3 million -- about the same amount Forbes paid for the famous television spot last May that showed him looking presidential in regal surroundings modeled after the Oval Office.

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Forbes attended Princeton University during the late 1960s and he served in the National Guard during the Vietnam War. While others joined Princeton's Vietnam protest movement, Forbes found an alternative outlet for his political sensibilities: Business Today, a conservative magazine he created. He later went on to take over the reigns of Forbes magazine, the family's crown jewel. Forbes magazine is said to have a market value of $1 billion, and Forbes himself is said to be valued at as much as $440 million.

During the '90s, the candidate sought to parlay his family fortune and position as editor in chief of Forbes into a political launch pad -- and he has had considerable success doing so. During his first White House run in 1996, he entered the race late and spent $37 million promoting his single-issue flat tax campaign, with as much as $400 a vote poured into Iowa alone.

"It didn't matter what the question was, the answer was the flat tax," says a former top administrator of the Christian Coalition. Understandably, Christian conservatives were leery of a candidate who had once called Pat Robertson a "toothy flake" and the Christian Coalition a myopic organization that "didn't speak for most Christians." In 1996, the then-economic conservative decried a total ban on abortion as "a waste of time."

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"I am white, a Protestant, an Ivy Leaguer, rich, business-oriented, without practical political experience," he flatly acknowledged in 1996. "It couldn't be worse, but at least I'd like to be free to fall down on my own arse without any help from conservatives."

Four years later, in the 2000 election, Forbes is reaching out to social conservatives with a vengeance -- at times, he even sounds downright Pentecostal. "The first order of compassion is protecting the unborn," he regularly states, and in the last two years he has hired away several Christian Coalition field directors to work on his campaign.

Forbes started courting conservatives of all stripes early. In 1997, he created a nonprofit organization, Americans for Hope, Growth and Opportunity and a matching political action committee which became one of the most prolific issues advertisers in the country. The group produced and aired radio and television ads advocating for a flat tax, arguing to downsize the federal government, criticizing the Chemical Weapons Convention, offering support for a missile defense system, calling for the establishment of medical savings accounts, decrying medicinal marijuana legalization and calling for a ban on "partial-birth abortions."

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The ads have hit the airwaves in 20 states, including the crucial primary and caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Arizona. AHGO has also sent out a flurry of e-mails and faxes to conservative activists and legislators around the country. After Clinton's 1998 State of the Union, it funded a one-minute response ad starring Forbes.

Setting up a PAC as a prelude to a run for president is a time-honored tradition. Many candidates create PACs in order to jump start their presidential runs as early as possible. But Forbes' move was controversial because he circumvented federal disclosure and fund-raising laws by registering AHGO with the New Jersey Secretary of State instead of the FEC. Estimates of the dollars the group has raked in since 1997 vary widely -- with some reporting amounts between $4 and $10 million.

But Forbes hasn't just whipped out his wallet every time he wanted to score points with conservatives. He has also toured the country and met with the top leaders of conservative organizations. "Consequently, what conservatives may have called pandering if someone else did it, they haven't called pandering," states David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union. "It's [Forbes'] ability really in a retail sense to meet and convince them that he's sincere that's allowed him to make so many inroads."

So far, Forbes has lined up the support of the more notable conservative leaders and solid majority of the rank and file too. Most recently his continuous pro-life message has earned him the endorsement of Phyllis Schlafly, the grand dame of the anti-abortion movement who also well known for her late-1970s efforts to kill the Equal Rights Amendment.

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But until now, the conservative support shared by Alan Keyes and, to a lesser extent, Gary Bauer, has prevented Forbes from posing a more serious threat to Bush.

"I think if there was one conservative campaign this could be a real race," says Morton Blackwell, a president of the conservative Leadership Institute and life-long GOP activist. "But because so many conservatives are split for a variety of reasons, it's going to be tough."

But with his deep reserves, Forbes is the only social conservative who can stay in the race as long as he'd like to. And for now, he shows no signs of giving up.


Susan Crabtree

Susan Crabtree writes for Roll Call.

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