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Forbes Gets His Calling

The early campaigner blamed the religious right for his '96 primary loss. if you can't beat 'em ...

Time cover By John F. Dickerson

(TIME, October 20) -- Those close to Steve Forbes know only this about his spiritual life: he's an Episcopalian and attends St. John on the Mountain in Bernardsville, N.J. Perhaps you'd be circumspect about your faith too if your father had made you wear a kilt to Sunday services as a kid. "He hadn't given an awful lot of thought to these kinds of issues until he started running for President last year," says Forbes supporter Gordon Humphrey. Nor had Forbes spent much time communing with the more demonstrative branches of Protestantism. "As an Episcopalian, he never rubbed shoulders too much with Baptists and those who fall into the category of religious conservatives."

But as Forbes tries a second time for the Republican Party's presidential nomination, he is rubbing a lot of those shoulders. After he settled into a black Chevrolet Suburban last June for a drive with the Rev. Louis Sheldon, the ultraconservative founder of the Traditional Values Coalition, Forbes endured an hour-long grilling. The preacher asked for Forbes' view about abortion (against), school choice (for), and the "homosexual-rights agenda" (against, but no harassment, please). "I was a doubter," says Sheldon. "The stereotype from the 1996 campaign was that Steve Forbes was clearly pro-choice and clearly libertarian." Sheldon emerged a believer. "By the time we got there," he recalls, "we were chatting away like two old cousins."

Since withdrawing from the presidential race 19 months ago, Forbes has been attempting to sell himself as a social conservative to religious leaders like Sheldon. That's no mean feat for a patrician publisher, but there are signs that the crusade is working. So adroitly has Forbes courted the religious right since last year's election that G.O.P. elders who once treated him as an amusing sideshow now talk of him as a comer to watch in the early stages of the 2000 campaign. "No one is laughing now," says Republican Congressman Bill Paxon.

Forbes' wooing of religious conservatives is, above all, a reaction to the failure of his last campaign. After an early spurt in last year's Republican primaries, Forbes was forced out of the race in part because he was indifferent to the party's powerful Christian Coalition wing. At one point, remembered by campaign chairman Malcolm Wallop as "that big catastrophe in Iowa," Forbes took off after the organization for falsely painting him as pro-abortion rights. "The Christian Coalition does not speak for most Christians," he said.

To avoid such costly confrontations, Forbes is recasting himself more to the Christian Coalition's liking while insisting he is not undergoing a makeover. "This is where Steve has always been," says Bill Dal Col, former campaign manager and president of the Forbes think tank. Forbes' pastor at St. John on the Mountain says Forbes has a track record of talking thoughtfully about religious subjects in the confines of his own church. In May 1994 "he gave really a remarkable speech on the subject of religion, ethics and spirituality on the one hand and corporate life and free enterprise on the other," says the Rev. Al Niese. "It was wonderfully witty initially and then marvelously deep and thoughtful. He really seemed to be comfortable with his voice here."

Forbes' background prepared him to be more comfortable quoting John Adams than citing John the Baptist. "In his religious tradition, taciturnity surrounded the private sphere," says theologian and longtime friend Michael Novak. That was obvious during the 1996 campaign, when Forbes came face to face with the Christian activists. Retired New Hampshire Senator Gordon Humphrey recalls arranging a meeting between Forbes and Ralph Reed, then the Christian Coalition's executive director. "Reed came bounding up the steps of the campaign bus, and you could see in his face that Steve was uneasy mixing with these folks."

Now Forbes speaks their language. Gone is his trademark obsession with the flat tax, replaced with a broader discourse on moral issues ranging from partial-birth abortion to assisted suicide (against both). Advisers who urged distance from the Christian Coalition have been dumped in favor of consultants who worked for Pat Buchanan; speeches about the gold standard are outnumbered by perorations on "loyalty, love, diligence and duty." Forbes has also tried to earn his bona fides by spending money: in early May his organization paid for radio and television ads in seven states to sway undecided Senators into supporting the national partial-birth-abortion ban being debated in Congress. And he scored a spot at center stage when the Christian Coalition announced its new agenda in Washington on Aug. 26. He won big applause at the group's national convention with his assertion that "life begins at conception." Next week in Policy Review magazine he will publish his most extensive essay yet on issues dear to the Christian conservatives, titled "The Moral Basis of a Free Society." Thick with references to Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and the Great Awakening, it reads like a postgraduate thesis on the role of morality in the national consciousness. "The Founders, even those most suspicious of organized religion, believed...that man himself and the world in which he lived were created and sustained by a just and loving God," writes Forbes. Says Reed: "What you're seeing is a work in progress. Forbes has come a long way from those awkward moments in 1996."

For one thing, he has become more confessional in a series of meetings and lunches with top religious leaders. "He was right on target about the problems families are having with raising children and morality and education," says Beverly Lehaye, founder of Concerned Women for America, who had a private chat with Forbes. "He sounded like a concerned dad." Speaking to the Christian Coalition last month, Forbes talked about his mother's death to illustrate his point about doctor-assisted suicide. "I've listened carefully and been very attracted to him," says Jerry Falwell, whom Forbes has courted on three separate occasions. "He is a man of faith, but I don't think that he is going to become a Baptist evangelist any more than I think George Bush or Ronald Reagan might."

While some of Forbes' rhetoric has changed, his views still make him unacceptable as the standard-bearer for that wing of the party. He will not push for a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion altogether. "You have to recognize that in a democracy, people are not with you yet, and therefore you have to persuade," he says. So leaders like James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who met with him one on one, come away disappointed. As Dobson's lieutenant Gary Bauer puts it, "We're way too far down the road to be satisfied with snappy applause lines."

Forbes does bring to this campaign, however, the advantage he had in the last one: money. The multimillionaire who spent $42 million in his last race is still worth an estimated $400 million. He has raised $2 million to fund his postelection travels--spending only $100,000 of his own--and says he'll raise it all next time if he runs. But he's leaving open the option of spending his own money. That's something putative candidates like Dan Quayle and Lamar Alexander can only dream of.

Courting The Christian Conservatives

Three ways he has scored

1. Paid for radio ads demanding an end to partial-birth abortions
2. Reaffirmed to the Christian Coalition that "life begins at conception"
3. Does not favor special rights or protection for homosexuals

Three ways he has missed

1. Does not believe abortion should be illegal for victims of rape or incest
2. Will not sign a pledge to support a constitutional amendment banning abortion
3. Supports most-favored-nation trading status for People's Republic of China

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