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Without Buchanan, Forbes Aims to Be GOP's Mr. Right

Politics: Candidate argues he's conservative alternative to front-runner Bush. A strategic crossroad looms.

October 27, 1999|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Forbes assembled that list after months of careful wooing that included private meetings with small groups of Southern Baptist pastors who grilled him on social issues. "When you get down here, we are Christians first and Republicans second," says Dee Workman Benedict, a Christian Coalition board member who's gone to work for Forbes in South Carolina. "He is able to talk about those [social] issues now in a language [his listeners] understand, and he wasn't able to do that four years ago."

Yet for all the signs of progress, Forbes still faces several hurdles to becoming a true threat to Bush. One is the continued presence in the race of conservative activist Gary Bauer, who's challenging Forbes for votes on the right. Though Bauer shows minuscule support in national surveys, he's hoping to vault past Forbes with a victory in the Louisiana caucus in January--the strategy Buchanan used four years ago to ambush his better-financed conservative rival, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas).

Nor is it yet clear that Bush is too moderate for many Republicans. In New Hampshire, polls show him comfortably leading Forbes even among voters who term themselves "very conservative."

And in recasting himself as a crusader for hard-core conservative causes, especially on social issues, Forbes appears to have diminished his appeal to more moderately conservative voters, who still dominate the GOP primary electorate in most states. "I think he's losing as much on one end as he's gaining on the other," said Warren Tompkins, who's running Bush's campaign in South Carolina.

Many analysts believe Forbes' greatest difficulty remains the skepticism among voters about electing a president who has never held public office.

"Most Republican primary voters, whether they be strong conservatives or not . . . want someone who has demonstrated success as a political leader--and that's a fundamental liability for Steve Forbes," said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster unaffiliated in the race.

Those doubts may be most daunting for Forbes in Southern states such as South Carolina, where this New Jersey Episcopalian who starred on the chess team at Princeton University faces a potentially formidable cultural gap with rank-and-file voters. If Forbes is still viable when the GOP race arrives here in February, his fate may turn on whether Southern Republicans will vote for a candidate with Barry Goldwater's message but Nelson Rockefeller's pedigree.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Incredible Shrinking GOP Campaign

The presidential primary season is more compacted than ever, placing a premium on early fund-raising. With Patrick J. Buchanan leaving the GOP on Monday to seek the Reform Party nomination, six candidates have quit the Republican contest, three months before a vote is cast. Never have so many serious candidates quit so early. In effect, donors have supplanted voters in winnowing the presidential field.

*

*Smith left the GOP to run as an Independent.

**Buchanan left the GOP to run for the Reform Party's nomination.

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