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The Reluctant Warrior

Free-spending millionaire Steve Forbes is rising in the polls, but is he really playing to win?

January 22, 1996

From TIME Correspondent Michael Kramer

A candidate knows he's hot when he finds himself in his rivals' cross hairs, and that's exactly what happened during last Saturday's Iowa debate, when nine of the 14 candidate-on-candidate swipes were directed at Steve Forbes. But now that he has won the battle to be taken seriously, will Forbes display the killer instinct required to finish the job?

In the crucial, early battlegrounds of Iowa and New Hampshire, Forbes still trails Bob Dole by a wide margin, but he leads the other G.O.P. candidates nationally and is actually ahead of Dole in Arizona, where 39 delegates are up for grabs a week after the New Hampshire primary. For a time, the Dole camp was pleased that Forbes was crowding out the rest of the field. No more. Forbes' media blitz, which blasts Dole as a tax-loving Washington dealmaker, has prompted a fierce counterattack that only confirms Forbes' new status. Beware of Forbes' "risky ideas," says a new Dole spot running in Iowa. "Great," says Forbes' campaign manager, Bill Dal Col. "Dole's setting up a one-on-one race."

Money and message are fueling Forbes' rise from obscurity. Forbes will tap his own wallet for at least $25 million, and by refusing federal matching funds, he can spend it as he wants. This means that in New Hampshire and Iowa (with spending ceilings of $600,000 and $1.1 million, respectively), Forbes will probably outspend his rivals 2 to 1. Overall, he will soon report expenditures of about $15 million. That's less than Dole and Phil Gramm (about $20 million each), but both have spent so heavily on overhead that Forbes has been free to dominate the airwaves in the early-contest states, at least so far.

It's Forbes' message, though, that is drawing crowds on the stump. "Everyone's anxious and frustrated as the economy transits to a new era," says Forbes. "But, like the people, I'm still optimistic. The other guys come across as dour sourpusses. That's why things like my flat-tax proposal are catching on." But it's not just the flat tax. In California last week, Forbes' audiences were clearly taken with his ideas for reforming Social Security. "Everyone knows it's going kaput," Forbes said. "I'd leave it as is for those who'll retire in the next 12 years. For the rest, I'd create individual retirement accounts so there's money left when they get old." "I was impressed," says Don Fisher, founder of the Gap store chain, in a common reaction after Forbes spoke in San Francisco. "I'm for Dole, but I like that Forbes has the courage to take on something that's broken."

Through it all, Forbes seems a reluctant candidate. As a longtime Jack Kemp fan, Forbes concedes that he wouldn't be running if Kemp were. And Forbes thinks Dole could co-opt him by stealing his tax-reform ideas, as Gramm and Pat Buchanan have done. Dole's problem, says Forbes, is that "he only responds to his In box. No initiative, no ideas of his own. Everything he's done for 35 years has been exactly the wrong training for the Oval Office. I shouldn't offer him advice," he continues, but Dole could "learn from Alfred P. Sloan," the legendary General Motors chairman. "Sloan knew he couldn't compete with Henry Ford on efficiency, so he changed the rules of the game," says Forbes. "He introduced things like different-color cars and annual model changes, and it's taken Ford 70 years to get back close to GM. I'm like Sloan. I see what the new world needs and wants, and I'm offering it. Dole's still making black cars. But he doesn't have to."



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