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National Perspective | WASHINGTON OUTLOOK / RONALD

Forbes Is Spending Big, Investing Time as 2000 Campaign Approaches

September 29, 1997|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

DURHAM, N.H. — Perhaps it's time to schedule a debate, or a duel, between Newt Gingrich and Steve Forbes. Wherever he goes, Gingrich hails the legislation to balance the budget by 2002. Forbes can't pass a microphone without denouncing the deal and the Republican leaders who negotiated it. "Our congressional leadership," he said, "is neck-deep in compromise, captive to its doubts, in search of its soul."

The absence of doubt or nuance in that sentence is characteristic these days for Forbes. Although he says he won't formally decide until next year, Forbes already seems to be less contemplating than commencing a bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000. And now, suddenly, the man with the goofy grin and the serious bank account is also the man with the buzz.

Presidential politics three years before the fact is like nothing so much as spring training in baseball. Everything is green with possibility. This far from opening day, hope always trumps experience. No one is nicked or bruised; everyone is a contender.

Forbes, however, may have more legitimate claim to that title than most. His 1996 campaign was a balloon that deflated as fast as it rose. But he's quickly dusted himself off and forced himself back into the center of Republican conversations about the next campaign.

Since President Clinton's reelection, Forbes has been on the road almost constantly, schmoozing Republicans in 29 states and organizing an issue-advocacy group called Americans for Hope, Growth and Opportunity. His visit here last week was typical: a reception for local Republican activists, a forum on the flat tax and privatizing Social Security, then two well-attended meet-and-greets with conservatives in Manchester. It was enough to leave you checking not just your watch, but your calendar.

Forbes is investing not just early time, but early money. His group has spent almost $500,000 this year in television and radio ads denouncing the budget deal, urging a ban on so-called partial-birth abortion and attaching Forbes to other conservative priorities. No one has ever spent so much money so early pounding ads into early primary states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and Arizona. And next year Forbes may spend three times as much.

This exposure explains some of the early attention to Forbes. But his message is striking a chord too. Forbes is tapping into the current of conservative dissatisfaction with Congress and the budget deal: He's becoming the anti-Newt. In his speeches here last week, Forbes portrayed the one-time congressional revolutionaries as lost souls who had repeatedly "caved" to Clinton. "The rank-and-file Republicans," he said, "rightly ask: 'What are we trying to do there [in Washington]?' We must engage."

Forbes is turning heads also through his efforts to engage a critical Republican group that had little use for him last time: social conservatives. In 1996, religious conservatives recoiled from Forbes, largely because he said it didn't make sense to pursue a constitutional ban on abortion until the country was more willing to support it. After the Christian Coalition slammed that view in its voter guide, Forbes lashed back in Iowa, saying the group "does not speak for most Christians."

This time Forbes is trying to make amends. Besides his efforts on partial-birth abortion, he's also aired radio ads boosting school choice and opposing the legalization of marijuana. His speech at the Christian Coalition conference emphasized his support for an eventual ban on abortion--not his reluctance to seek one now. Forbes proved the surprise hit of the weekend.

"The response was electric," said Marshall Wittmann, the Christian Coalition's former Washington director and now a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "They view it as a conversion experience."

That enthusiasm suggests how much respect Forbes has regained in the party since his stumbles last year. But it would be overstating his gains to suggest he's resolved all the problems that derailed him in the first place.

As a campaigner, Forbes is more animated and spontaneous than last year, when he sometimes seemed lifted from a wax museum. But he's still several circuits short of electric. While he's engaging and unaffected in small groups, his privileged upbringing leaves him a bit light on common ground with bologna-and-cheese voters. (When asked once what challenges had strengthened him, he answered: being sent away to prep school.) And many social conservatives--like Pat Krueger, a key New Hampshire right-to-life advocate--remain suspicious of Forbes' position on abortion.

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