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Meet Forbes, the great romancer

time cover

By Steve Lopez

January 17, 2000
Web posted at: 11:27 a.m. EST (1627 GMT)

Jesus, if he were still around and had settled in Iowa, would be a very confused man when the caucuses roll around next week. Every time he opened his mailbox in the past month, he would have found come-ons from half a dozen presidential candidates who claim to know him. But as one man told me last week in the Mississippi River town of Bettendorf, "I don't know how God can not let Steve Forbes win. He has to be a pretty good guy if God gave him $250 million."

It is actually closer to $440 million, but why quibble? The point is that Forbes, pretty much forgotten by the national media, has not gone away. He has been quietly pouring millions into Iowa, plotting to wipe that smirk off Republican front runner George W. Bush's face.

Forbes knows there is no chance of beating Bush in Iowa, but the Hail Mary strategy is to finish a strong second, as Pat Buchanan did in 1996, and wobble Bush just enough that Senator John McCain can pile on, whupping Bush in New Hampshire Feb. 1. Then, goes the theory, people will ask what they ever saw in Bush anyway. And if this should happen, the man who could outspend all the candidates combined is--guess who?

To find out whether this is a real possibility or the final act in a nationally televised mid-life crisis, I joined Forbes as he crisscrossed Iowa by plane and bus. And I must say--for the sake of getting it out of the way--that yes, he looks as if he just accidentally walked into a brick wall and was knocked goofy. The glasses and smile are akimbo, and the eyes are not right. But he is so obviously pained by this, and stuck with it, that I found a sympathetic quality in him.

The night we met, Forbes came to the back of his chartered Gulf Stream turboprop and asked me, of all people, the inside story on the AOL-Time Warner merger. When I told him I had hoped to ask his take on the whole mess, along with his advice on what to do with the stock, he said sell. "Nobody ever lost money taking a profit," he said. Two days after I didn't take his advice, God punished me. The stock had dropped 25 points.

Over the next few days--in Sioux City, Mason City, Dubuque, Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids, Muscatine and Washington--no fewer than 120 people attended each event to hear Forbes' anti-Washington, pro-life gospel. In 1996 Forbes was a one-trick pony with the flat tax. Now he, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes lead with morality. The Forbes people pray that one of those two doesn't become this year's Buchanan, whose 1996 campaign had Bible thumpers jumping out of their pews in the Hawkeye State, where a popular billboard reads GOD IS PRO-LIFE. ARE YOU?

Depends on the year. In the last go-around and for most of his life, Forbes kept his religion privatized. If anything, he offended social conservatives by calling Pat Robertson a toothy flake and saying that if a woman were raped, she had a right to an abortion. But when President Clinton put the hallelujah back in Republican politics, the Lord Jesus suddenly gave Steve Forbes the courage to testify for faith-based leadership. You'd think such a swift conversion might backfire, but there's little evidence of it in Iowa. Steve Scheffler, leader of the state's Christian Coalition from 1991 to 1998, campaigns for Forbes and claims true believers admire the candidate for putting God right up there with the flat tax.

At times, Forbes' crowds hit 200 in Iowa, where he has county chairmen in all 99 counties, as opposed to just 36 in 1996. He is genuine, some fans rave. He is not a politician, say others. In Bettendorf, at the medieval Jumer's Castle Lodge, Forbes played King Arthur to 300 loyal knights, each of whom--while dining on free Swedish meatballs--was asked to deliver five friends or relatives to the caucuses. Forbes wowed them with bug-eyed passion, some pretty good one-liners and simplistic but perfectly aimed shots at lobbyists, bureaucrats and Monica's ex-beau. "I'm pumped," he proclaimed, and three dozen people stood in line to shake his hand or get an autograph.

After the rally, Forbes retired to the Holiday Inn Muscatine and phoned the youngest of his five daughters, Elizabeth, 12, to see how she was doing and make sure she had finished her homework. Missing her is the hardest part of this, he said. But his wife Sabina, to whom he proposed five weeks after they met nearly 30 years ago, was traveling through Iowa with him. "It was a very romantic setting," he said of his proposal to Sabina. "It was a diner." She had been up 48 hours, studying for exams, and he figured he would pop the question when she wasn't thinking straight.

Forbes described himself to me as "charismatically challenged." When I asked Sabina one night why he subjects himself to something he is so unnatural at, she said only, "He has very strong beliefs." Forbes spent $26 million from his own piggy bank on these beliefs in 1999, and roughly $37 million in 1996. I asked him and Sabina if they ever thought it might have been wiser to spend that money on their grandchildren--or one really knockout vacation--than on political ads. Sabina deferred to Steve, who didn't really answer.

After last Monday's Republican debate in Michigan, Harry Veryser, one of Forbes' advisers in that state, laid out a theory. "I think he envisions himself the new leader of the conservative movement rather than the next President. I think his mind-set is 'What's going to be my legacy?' He's more interested in affecting public policy than in holding office. And if he can get rid of the IRS and this oppressive tax system, that'll be enough, and he'll have his reward in heaven."

Forbes says Veryser has a nice theory, except that he is in the fight until at least June, and he expects to win. My advice? If Iowa and New Hampshire don't work out, sell.


Cover Date: January 24, 2000

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