Forbes is a hot political property Momentum: Millionaire Steve Forbes is gaining press and voter attention with just a month to go until the New Hampshire primary.


MANCHESTER, N.H. -- A month ago, only two reporters showed up when Steve Forbes spoke to a Rotary Club luncheon in Portsmouth.

This week, Mr. Forbes arrived for a 7:30 a.m. speech at a Rotary Club here and was met by six television crews and more than two dozen reporters from state and national news organizations.

The message in this contrast is that Steve Forbes has suddenly become a hot political property, with the New Hampshire primary just a month away.

Nor is his new celebrity reflected only in press attention. He drew overflow audiences to two voter meetings on the day that began with breakfast with the Rotarians.

Those who listen to Mr. Forbes include both the curious and a few who seem won over.

"It's an interesting idea, the flat tax," Elias E. Ashooh, an investment adviser, said after the breakfast. "People want to hear what he has to say, and nobody else seems very interesting."

A real estate salesman from Portsmouth was more convinced. "I was sort of lukewarm for Bob Dole," said Tom Culligan. "But I'm sick of Washington, and this guy could shake things up, so I've decided to go with him and try something different."

The explosion of interest in the wealthy magazine publisher has been fueled by three developments in the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

The first was the unrelenting attack directed at Mr. Forbes and his proposal for a 17 percent flat tax by several rivals in the debate in Iowa a week ago. Whatever their intent, the effect was to elevate the wealthy challenger to the stature of a candidate so threatening that he had to be cut down to size.

Second, on the heels of the Iowa debate, three new opinion polls of New Hampshire primary voters showed the lead of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole declining, while Mr. Forbes was running an unambiguous second.

The surveys all give Mr. Dole 30 percent to 35 percent of the vote, down from more than 50 percent two months ago, and Mr. Forbes 17 percent to 21 percent.

The polls all show Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative former television commentator, with about 10 percent and give single-digit support to both Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the candidates who were supposed to be the most serious challengers to Mr. Dole.

This supports the theory of Gov. Steve Merrill of New Hampshire, a Dole backer, that other candidates are being "drowned out" by Mr. Forbes and his saturation barrage of TV commercials.

Third, Mr. Forbes clearly benefited from the sudden national focus on the flat tax caused by the report of the Republican commission headed by former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp.

The result has been an impression that Mr. Forbes is now controlling the debate among the nine Republicans competing.

Looking back on the Des Moines forum in an interview, Mr. Forbes, allowing himself a small smile, said, "It's obvious we've set the agenda in a way they didn't anticipate."

The perception of Mr. Forbes as a rising force has been heightened by a full-scale attack of television commercials sponsored by the Dole campaign.

They feature an announcer deriding Mr. Forbes for promoting "risky ideas" and claiming his plan would add $186 billion a year to the federal budget deficit.

"The more you learn about Steve Forbes, the more questions you have," the commercials say.

Other candidates are also joining in the attack by questioning whether Mr. Forbes can be considered a realistic candidate for the nomination, given his lack of conventional credentials.

"I don't find anyone who believes that Steve Forbes is a plausible candidate for president," Mr. Gramm told a party meeting here. "Does anyone really believe that Steve Forbes would beat Bill Clinton?"

Mr. Alexander, who derided the flat tax of Mr. Forbes as "a nutty idea," and his advisers here are arguing that the proposal could be particularly damaging in New Hampshire because it would end the deductibility of property taxes, as well as of mortgage interest.

In a state without an income or sales tax, the property tax is the prime source of revenue for local governments and particularly for education. So property owners in New Hampshire would, in effect, pay a disproportionate penalty.

"When they understand that, it's going to be different," said William Cahill, who is running Mr. Alexander's operation here.

Mr. Forbes' detractors also contend that he lacks the organization to succeed in either the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 12 or the primary here on Feb. 20.

Paul Collins, who is a longtime aide to former Gov. John Sununu and now is heading the Forbes operation in the state, says he has a paid staff of nine and volunteers setting up local operations across New Hampshire.

"We are attracting a lot of people who haven't been traditionally involved in campaigns," he said.

Mr. Forbes is also getting some conventional help. He was endorsed this week by former Sen. Gordon Humphrey and by a former president of the state Senate, Edward DuPont.

Mr. Forbes continues, meanwhile, with a barrage of 30-second television commercials, contrasting what he calls the Senate majority leader's "Washington values" with his own "conservative values."

The commercials blast Mr. Dole for voting for such things as higher congressional pensions, a three-block subway from the Senate office building to the Capitol and public financing of political campaigns.

These votes, the Forbes ads argue, show Mr. Dole to be "a Washington politician."

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