JOHNSTON, Iowa -- Rival Republican presidential candidates ganged up on magazine publisher Malcolm S. Forbes Jr. and his controversial flat tax plan during an unusually lively TV debate here yesterday.
In the final joint appearance for the GOP hopefuls before next month's Iowa caucuses, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, who has a big lead in all the early polls, came away relatively unscathed, as his opponents took turns hammering Mr. Forbes.
Former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander termed the Forbes proposal a "truly nutty idea" that would devastate home values ++ and push up the taxes of middle-class Americans.
Texas Sen. Phil Gramm claimed that it would add $400 billion to the federal budget deficit.
And conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan joked that the idea must have been "worked up by the boys at the yacht basin."
Mr. Forbes, whose self-financed candidacy has captured the attention of Republican voters here and in other battleground states, would apply a single, 17 percent tax rate on wage earnings.
But he would not tax savings, inheritances, capital gains or investment income at all, while doing away with all deductions, including those for home mortgage interest and charitable gifts.
"It shows that my message is taking root," Mr. Forbes said of the attacks directed his way during the 90-minute forum, sponsored by the Des Moines Register and carried on cable television nationwide.
The debate, held in a TV studio in this Des Moines suburb, was moderated by Register editor Dennis R. Ryerson, who conveyed questions that had been sent in by the readers of the newspaper.
At one point, the candidates were also questioned briefly by two high school students.
Mr. Forbes has poured more than $10 million of his own money into his long-shot candidacy, much of it for a saturation TV ad campaign promoting his tax idea and attacking Mr. Dole as a Washington politician addicted to raising taxes.
His success in making the flat tax a central part of the '96 campaign could be seen in a question sent in by one Iowan, who wanted to know how much Mr. Forbes would save in taxes if his plan became law. Mr. Forbes cited public estimates that he would get a windfall of $100,000 to $250,000 a year.
But he said he had already spent more than 200 times that amount on his campaign promoting a simpler tax system and an overall cut in federal taxes.
He also said the fact that the other candidate were hammering him proves that "Washington politicians can't stand that I am going to take away their principal source of power and give it to you, the people."
Mr. Alexander, who has been struggling to make his own outsider message heard, turned to Mr. Forbes at one point and said: "Steve, the only thing you've ever run is a magazine you inherited, and you raised the price of your magazine."
Mr. Forbes shot back that buying subscriptions is voluntary. "Taxes are not," he said.
Forbes in second place
A top Forbes aide said the campaign's internal polls show that the conservative publisher, in his first run for public office, has pulled to within 11 points of Mr. Dole in Iowa.
Other polls have shown Mr. Forbes in second place here and in New Hampshire.
This week, the Dole campaign began airing TV commercials in Iowa attacking Mr. Forbes as untested, a reference to the fact that he has no experience outside of running his family's magazine.
The response ads are a tacit acknowledgment that the Senate majority leader is being hurt by the Forbes candidacy.
Mr. Dole twitted Mr. Forbes during the debate, saying that in the event of another federal budget impasse, to resolve it, "you could always borrow the money from Steve Forbes if you needed it."
The Kansas senator also got in a dig at Mr. Gramm, by noting that one of the high school students questioning the candidates JTC has "passed every grade she's ever been in."
Mr. Gramm flunked the third grade and had to do remedial work in two other grades, though he went on to earn a doctorate in economics.
Dole aides delighted
Mr. Dole's aides professed to be delighted with the way the debate had gone. Some of his rivals' leading supporters here agreed.
"I expected that they would go after Senator Dole more. But they went after Forbes and his flat tax. That was good for Dole," said former Republican National Chairman Mary Louise Smith, an Alexander backer.
Several of the GOP contenders are promoting flat tax ideas, but none would go so far as Mr. Forbes. For example, Mr. Gramm and Mr. Buchanan would continue to let taxpayers take deductions for home mortgage interest and charitable gifts.
The other candidates claim that Mr. Forbes has been getting a free ride up to now, because his proposals received relatively little scrutiny from the news media.
Now, they added, that phase of the campaign is over.
Mr. Gramm told reporters he is not surprised that the Forbes plan, boosted by what he said was a $12 million ad campaign, had captured the fancy of Republican voters.
"I think when people understand his flat tax proposal, I think they'll be against it overwhelmingly," he predicted.