TOPICS > Politics

Changing the Rules

February 2, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: It was a heady rush of curiosity and excitement Monday when 200 friends and neighbors descended on Barbara Pressly’s house in Nashua, New Hampshire. They came to meet the new celebrity of the Republican Presidential field, Steve Forbes.

MARILYN HOUSEMAN, Republican: Everything was getting very tired and very used and everybody sounded the same and all of a sudden Forbes came on the scene with something new.

MARGARET WARNER: Forbes attracted crowds at every stop in New Hampshire this week, crowds of would-be voters and press. They all wanted a good look at the millionaire magazine publisher who has suddenly brought some suspense to the primary race. Last month, this political unknown vaulted into clear second place in many New Hampshire polls, and three surveys this week actually put him first. The polls are notoriously volatile at this stage, but they were enough to land Forbes on the covers of “Time” and “Newsweek” and to jolt the campaign of the previously unassailable front-runner, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. Veteran Republican operative Dave Carney, senior adviser to Dole’s New Hampshire campaign.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think Forbes could beat Dole here?

DAVE CARNEY: I don’t know. I don’t know.

MARGARET WARNER: Dole’s campaign is fighting back with television ads, questioning whether the neophyte Forbes is fit for the office.

AD SPOKESMAN: The more you learn about Steve Forbes, the more questions you have. Steve Forbes, untested leadership, risky ideas.

MARGARET WARNER: Forbes relishes his new status.

STEVE FORBES, Republican Presidential Candidate: I think it’s a contest between the failed politics of the past and the vibrant vision for the future.

MARGARET WARNER: Forbes’ vision is an upbeat one.

STEVE FORBES: America once again will prove wrong the critics and the skeptics and America once more will take her place as the leader and inspiration of the world.

MARGARET WARNER: The part of his vision his most eagerly touts is a proposal for a flat 17 percent personal income tax with no deductions.

STEVE FORBES: If we want Americans to have faith again in their institutions, want to have–get rid of this corrosive effect on American life, we have to get rid of that tax code. There’s only one thing to do with this monstrosity, you can’t reform it, you can’t trim it; the only thing to do with this monstrosity is to scrap it, kill it, drive a stake through its heart, bury it, and hope it never rises again to terrorize the American people.

MARGARET WARNER: Forbes’ surge has been propelled by a massive TV and radio campaign. The ads relentlessly promote his ideas.

STEVE FORBES: (ad) So I say scrap the tax code, put in a low flat tax. It’s simple. It’s honest, and that’s a big change for Washington.

ANNOUNCER: Steve Forbes for President.

MARGARET WARNER: And they just as relentlessly attack his opponents.

SPOKESMAN: (ad) Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, two Washington politicians. It’s time for a change. Lamar Alexander, he won’t change Washington, he’ll fit right in.

MARGARET WARNER: The 48-year-old Forbes is the sign of a wealthy New Jersey family who now runs the Forbes Magazine publishing empire. Though he accepts contributions, he is financing his campaign himself and refusing federal matching funds. That frees him from the state by state spending limits that restrict other candidates. The Forbes camp says it’s already poured nearly $1 million into New Hampshire radio and TV. His rivals say it’s twice that. They expect he’ll end up spending three times more than any other candidate, even Dole.

TOM RATH, Alexander Campaign Advisor: The buy is breathtaking in its depth and its breadth. I’ve never seen in all my years in politics in this state or anywhere a buy like this.

MARGARET WARNER: Former Attorney General Tom Rath is a seasoned Republican activist in the state. This year he’s advising Lamar Alexander’s campaign.

TOM RATH: Several weeks ago I watched the evening news on a local commercial station and we saw four Forbes ads. I then watched the sports on ESPN, saw four more, I watched Crossfire on CNN, saw two more, and I watched the Weather Channel and I saw three more. I felt like I was being stalked. I think but for his checkbook, not but for his ideas, but for his checkbook he’d probably be a 2 or 3 percent candidate. What we are seeing here in a really rather remarkable way is the tremendous power of dollars poured into reasonably small media markets in intensive fashion, and their ability to move poll numbers.

MARGARET WARNER: In an interview, Forbes made no apologies for dominating the airwaves.

STEVE FORBES: I’ve taken my message of growth and opportunity directly to the voters. Mine is an information age campaign. Their campaign is typical of the politics of the past, with huge staffs, mass mailings, and not going directly to the voters.

TOM RATH: He has removed the oxygen from this field. He has made it very hard for the rest of us to get our messages and our identification up because he has so completely engulfed the field with his message.

MARGARET WARNER: His rivals say Forbes’ surge reflects nothing more than the superficial attraction of a new face, the simplistic appeal of the flat tax, and the millions of dollars he’s spent to promote votes. But comments by voters here who like Forbes suggest he’s also tapping something deeper.

BOB KLEY, Independent: I think Steve has the best chance of winning because he’s new on the scene and Washington is disgraced the way it is right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob and Beverly Kley are part of the state’s large group of independent voters who can and often do vote in the Republican primary.

MARGARET WARNER: Then why do you think he’d be any different than anyone else?

BOB KLEY: Well, Steve would be a lot different because he can’t be bought.

MARGARET WARNER: Forbes is mining New Hampshire voters’ ongoing anger and frustration with Washington. It’s the same kind of anti-politics, anti-Washington, anti-government sentiment that fueled Ross Perot’s 1992 Presidential campaign and the Republican victory in the 1994 congressional elections.

MARILYN HOUSEMAN, Republican: He wants to give government back to us and give us a chance to change it.

MARGARET WARNER: That is very much the message though that all these Republican candidates are carrying. Why is it different coming from Forbes?

MARILYN HOUSEMAN: Because he’s not been there and failed us, and these other candidates all have.

MARGARET WARNER: Retired U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey is one of the few establishment Republican figures in the state who have endorsed Forbes.

GORDON HUMPHREY: I think people are looking for somebody fresh; they’re looking for someone who will go down to Washington and kick some butt.

MARGARET WARNER: Forbes’ sales pitch for his flat tax proposal tries to exploit those very feelings. He’s selling the flat tax not just as a tax cut for most Americans but as a way of stripping power from Washington.

STEVE FORBES: And to change the culture of Washington you have to get to the source of power in Washington, which is simply the major source of power is the tax code. Just remember, it is not your typical American who writes that tax code. It is the lobbyists, the lawyers, the rich, and the powerful.

MARGARET WARNER: There are plenty of Republicans and independents planning to vote in the primary who aren’t persuaded by Forbes, like registered nurse Linda Edelman.

LINDA EDELMAN, Independent: I don’t think he’s qualified to be President. He’s never run for electoral, electoral office. He’s never–whatever he’s done he’s done because he was born into the right family.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, with less than three weeks to go, Dole and the others have stepped up their efforts to fan such concerns. Dole’s latest ad using popular New Hampshire Gov. Stephen Merrill is part of a concerted strategy shared by many of Forbes’ rivals. They think they can undermine Forbes’ very candidacy with tax-averse New Hampshire voters by tearing apart the specifics of his flat tax proposal.

MAN: (Dole Ad) The typical New Hampshire household will pay $2,000 more in taxes, and we lose our property tax deduction and our mortgage interest deduction.

MARGARET WARNER: But in the current climate, the attacks are meeting with resistance from some voters.

BARBARA PRESSLY, Independent: The important part of the flat tax for me is not the details of the flat tax, but of the fact that he has identified one of the most ridiculous levels of government that everybody knows is insane.

BOB KLEY, Independent: Well, if he couldn’t make it fly, I would still vote for him, because there needs to be a change in Washington, a radical change.

MARGARET WARNER: And for voters like Rona Sharbineau, Forbes has been inoculated from a tax by ordinary politicians. A former county co-chairman for Dole, she defected to Forbes last month.

RONA SHARBINEAU: Because I don’t believe that they have the proof that this won’t work. I mean, it’s all smoke and mirrors once again.

MARGARET WARNER: Even Forbes’ public presence, which has been ridiculed in the press as awkward, policy wonkish and programmed, seems to work for him. Voters like health care consultant John Arisian find his unpolished, uncharismatic style authentic and reassuring.

JOHN ARISIAN: I expected to see a very wooden personality, and I was pleased to see that I think he’s a much more human real person, and I like that.

MARGARET WARNER: Will this current fascination with Forbes carry through the primary?

GORDON HUMPHREY, Forbes Supporter: It seems to me that we have a classic New Hampshire surprise in the making.

CLAIRA MONIER, Dole Campaign Advisor: I think we do have a boomlet. I do not think it’s for real.

MARGARET WARNER: Privately, Forbes aides say he doesn’t have to win New Hampshire; he only has to place such a formidable second that financial contributions to all of Dole’s other challengers dry up. Then they say Forbes will have a true head-to-head match with Dole as this Spring unfolds, and with a net worth estimated at $400 million, Forbes certainly has the money to go the distance.