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CAMPAIGN '96

GOP Rivals Take Aim at Forbes : Dole questions the economic impact of flat tax. Others attack the publishing heir over social views.

February 06, 1996|STEPHEN BRAUN and HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

DES MOINES — Dueling from distant corners of Iowa, front-running Republican presidential rivals Steve Forbes and Bob Dole traded barbs Monday over their electability and the likely economic impact of a flat tax--themes dominating the Iowa caucus campaign as it enters its final fractious week.

As the Iowa race showed further signs of tightening between the Senate leader from Kansas and the publishing heir from New Jersey, other candidates also tried to chip away at Forbes' standing with Christian conservatives on social issues.

The combination, for the first time in recent weeks, appeared to put Forbes on the defensive. Angered by a Dole television campaign ad that claims Forbes' flat-tax plan would raise the tax rate on many middle-income Americans, Forbes, campaigning by bus in western Iowa, challenged Dole to a "one-on-one debate."

Then, responding to a growing flurry of critical mailings and attacks by several rival campaigns and fundamentalist activist groups over his social views, Forbes insisted he opposes same-sex marriages and defended his company's private display of a seascape by controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

"I believe," Forbes said during a Sioux City talk radio appearance, "in equal rights for all, special rights for none."

Until now, Forbes has been able to largely set the campaign agenda, using his massive advantage in paid advertising.

According to a Forbes campaign filing Monday with the Federal Election Commission, during the last three months of 1995, Forbes spent more than $14 million, nearly $10 million of it on TV ads.

By comparison, Dole spent $8.4 million in that period, but less than $2 million appears to have gone to TV ads. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan all spent far less.

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For his part, Dole tried to keep above the fray in several campaign stops in central Iowa. His campaign aides cheekily accepted Forbes' call for a flat-tax debate, but only with Dole supporter and New Hampshire Gov. Steve Merrill as a stand-in. And Dole told voters in the university town of Ames that his experience makes him the only viable Republican to challenge President Clinton in the November general election.

"I think what it boils down to is experience, getting things done," Dole said at a campaign stop at Iowa State University. "I like to get things done."

Republican leaders here say that as many as 20% of the party's likely voters in next Monday's caucuses remain undecided. As undecided voters try to make up their mind, Dole is clearly hoping that experience and electability will become determining factors.

That could work. "What you have is a large group of undecideds, and even some of the support for the two top candidates is still pretty soft," said Brian Kennedy, chairman of the state party.

After a year of listening to relentless campaigning on economic, cultural and social themes, a year in which they have been unable to sort out their opinions, undecided Republican voters are left with "deciding who can make the strongest candidate in November," Kennedy said.

But the disenchantment with the field, both here and in New Hampshire--the other key early contest--could blunt that argument. In New Hampshire, a new poll taken by the Concord Monitor showed that fewer than 40% of that state's likely Republican primary voters believe any of the GOP candidates can defeat Clinton.

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But among undecided voters like Marilyn Mayberry, neither Dole's veteran's pose nor Forbes' outsider's appeal has yet to make a dent.

Mayberry, 43, a dairy worker and Christian conservative who showed up to see Forbes Monday night in Orange City, was no closer to a choice after listening to Forbes' stump speech.

"I feel Dole's too old," Mayberry said. But she worries about Forbes, "scared that . . . he'll come up short. I worry about his inexperience."

Forbes, however, has had little time to reassure Iowa voters, for as he rises in the polls, he is increasingly forced to defend himself on issues other than his trademark flat-tax proposals.

In an appearance on a radio talk show and in speeches before western Iowa civic and political clubs, Forbes was forced to stray to myriad other subjects, from his criticism of a federal subsidy for ethanol, the grain-based gas substitute, to his angry rejection of Dole's criticism that his family run magazine, Forbes, practiced age discrimination.

Most uncomfortably, Forbes had to defend himself against charges, some apparently stirred by whispering campaigns generated by opposing camps, on social issues.

At Forbes' Orange City stop, Jason Carlton, a college student who supports Gramm, rose to ask if Forbes magazine displays a Mapplethorpe photograph. Forbes replied "the company has a yacht and one of the seascapes on it . . . the photograph was taken by Mapplethorpe 25 years ago. That's the only one the company or the family owns."

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