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Forbes Deals Blow to Dole, Wins in Delaware

Campaign: Publisher's faltering candidacy gets a boost, further complicating GOP race. Buchanan comes in third.

February 25, 1996|ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — Publishing magnate Steve Forbes won tiny Delaware's Republican presidential primary Saturday, tightening the squeeze on the beleaguered candidacy of Bob Dole, who finished second.

Complete returns showed Forbes with 33% of the vote while Dole, who just Tuesday lost the New Hampshire primary to Patrick J. Buchanan, trailed with 27%. He was followed by Buchanan with 19% and Lamar Alexander with 13%.

Forbes clearly benefited from being the only major candidate among those still running to personally campaign in Delaware. The other candidates stayed away in deference to New Hampshire GOP leaders, who vigorously objected that the Delaware primary was less than a week after the Granite State's first-in-the-nation contest.

But for both Forbes and those who ignored it, the Delaware vote should help shape the rest of the Republican campaign.

Forbes' victory in the winner-take-all contest not only gave him all 12 of Delaware's convention delegates, it provided a much-needed psychological boost to his self-financed candidacy. Forbes had thrust himself into prominence with a massive ad campaign promoting his flat-tax proposal and attacking his rivals, only to stall during the past month amid charges that his negative tactics had poisoned the campaign environment.

In the view of some analysts, without a Delaware victory he could not have remained a force in the race.

"You're going to see in the days ahead this Delaware primary does count," Forbes said Saturday night while campaigning in Arizona, where he predicted he would do "very well' in Tuesday's primary.

His newly named campaign manager, former Sen. Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming, claimed that with the Delaware win, Forbes had shattered "the glass ceiling" over his candidacy after his fourth-place finishes in the Feb. 12 Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire.

"Our biggest problem has been for quite some time the voting public loved the message but was not persuaded Steve Forbes could win anything," Wallop said. "But that's gone for good."

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Overall, Buchanan leads in the GOP delegate count with 27, followed by Forbes (17), Dole (16) and Alexander (9). Needed for the nomination are 996 delegates.

Dole, whose grip on the nomination was once seen as almost unshakable, tried Saturday night to make the best of running second in Delaware.

"We never had a chance to campaign there," the Senate Republican leader said as he stumped in Arizona. "I think if we place second there, we did pretty well."

But Dole's decision not to contest Delaware and make it easier for Forbes to win there could turn out to be a fateful blunder. With his personal fortune, Forbes alone among the remaining GOP candidates has the financial resources to confront Dole on even terms, or better, in the contests ahead.

This takes on extra significance because an analysis of Federal Election Commission reports last week showed that Dole seemed likely to reach the $37-million spending limit on primary spending within the next two or three weeks. Forbes, because his campaign is self-financed and does not accept federal matching funds, can spend as much as his checkbook allows.

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This looms as a particular problem for Dole in New York's March 7 primary, where 102 of the 996 delegates needed for GOP nomination are at stake and where Forbes and Dole are the only candidates on the ballot in all 31 congressional districts.

Dole has the backing of New York's GOP leadership, and his aides expected to take the vast majority of the delegates there. But Forbes and Buchanan, who is on the ballot in some of the state's districts, together could transform Dole's dream of a huge victory into a nightmare.

Buchanan, who also was campaigning in Arizona on Saturday, termed his showing in Delaware "astounding since we haven't visited" there.

And despite finishing third, he could be counted as a big winner. The revival of Forbes' candidacy means that the publisher, along with Alexander, can continue to draw moderate votes away from Dole, keeping him vulnerable to Buchanan and his fervent supporters on the GOP's right wing.

Indeed, results of exit poll interviews of Delaware voters showed Forbes and Dole splitting the support of those who described themselves as moderates or somewhat conservative, while Buchanan got most of the voters who called themselves very conservative. He also ran strongly among the roughly 255 voters who described themselves as members of the religious right.

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Of primary voters who backed independent presidential candidate Ross Perot in 1992 when he got about 20% of the Delaware vote, by far the biggest single bloc went to Forbes.

Dole spent Saturday in Arizona hoping to alleviate resentment at him for spurning a primary debate in the state last week.

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