ONE OF THE FEW surprises of the Republican pre-primary season has been the rise of Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes Jr., to second place in the opinion polls ahead of such old political standbys as Phil Gramm, Lamar Alexander, Pat Buchanan and Dick Lugar. Publisher of the business magazine that bears his family name, Mr. Forbes still trails a resurgent Bob Dole by a large margin. But, like Ross Perot of four years ago, he makes the point that if money can't buy the presidency it can buy public attention.
In personality, the diffident Forbes and the aggressive Perot could hardly be more unlike. But in their willingness to spend huge fortunes in pursuit of the White House, they can exploit television to become celebrities overnight. With the number of -- American billionaires on the rise, the field could get crowded in future elections.
The also-rans behind Mr. Forbes are rewarding him with the flattery of imitation. He was the first to open fire on Mr. Dole in attack ads inundating New Hampshire and Iowa; now that has turned into a round-robin fusillade. He latched onto the flat tax as the consuming issue of his campaign; now all the others, including Mr. Dole, are pushing various proposals to do away with the present federal income tax system.
Today a commission headed by former Rep. Jack Kemp, the 1980's idol of Reaganomics Republicans, is to issue a report that could give momentum to the Forbes proposal. But because it was Mr. Dole who appointed the GOP tax commission, it is unlikely to propose a pure flat tax loaded with the specifics Mr. Forbes advocates and Democrats could lambaste.
In the peculiar dynamics of the pre-primary Republican season, Mr. Forbes has been an unintended Dole asset.
By leaping ahead of the professional politicians vying for the GOP nomination, he has, in effect, short-circuited their campaigns and consigned them to single-digits.
The result: Mr. Forbes may be in second place, partly filling the "outsider" slot spurned by Gen. Colin Powell, but Mr. Dole is still way out ahead of the field. Indeed, the latest CNN poll shows the Senate majority leader regaining his lead over President Clinton, thus undercutting the claims of his opponents that he cannot win in November.