DES MOINES, Iowa -- Sen. Bob Dole, speaking to the Iowa Pork Producers Association yesterday, took note of its television advertisements during the Super Bowl. "That's pretty expensive time," he said. "I'm not even sure Malcolm Forbes could have bought into that."
The audience laughed, but the point of Mr. Dole's wisecrack was no laughing matter for his presidential campaign.
As Malcolm "Steve" Forbes, the multimillionaire publisher, pounds him with a barrage of negative radio and television ads, the attacks appear to be cutting into Mr. Dole's lead approaching Iowa's Feb. 12 presidential caucuses and New Hampshire's primary eight days later.
Mr. Dole got another laugh before the Iowa pork producers by observing, "I've seen so many of those negative [Forbes] ads that I'm thinking of not voting for myself."
Instead, what he is doing in the face of Mr. Forbes' onslaught is firing back negative ads of his own. Together, both sides' attacks are coarsening the tone of campaigning in a state that has long prided itself on clean politics.
The Dole commercials have now gone beyond warning Iowa Republican voters that Mr. Forbes promotes "risky ideas," like his flat tax. The latest ad accuses him of wasting $276,000 in taxpayers' money in the "one government job" he'd held, as chairman of a federal board overseeing international broadcasting operations. The ad says Mr. Forbes also permitted a costly redecoration of "the residence of a friend who was his top aide."
The Dole ad touched on one of several findings by federal audits of Mr. Forbes' tenure in the government position. Asked yesterday about the allegations, Mr. Forbes said the money the auditors "talked about over a seven-year period was infinitesimal" and that corrective actions were taken for each problem.
Mr. Dole, asked whether he feared a backlash among Iowa voters for running negative ads after deploring their use by Mr. Forbes, said he believed "they want me to defend myself. It's playing a little defense" against Mr. Forbes' "Dole-bashing."
Mr. Forbes has been running ads charging Mr. Dole with voting in the Senate for numerous tax increases and with being just another "Washington politician."
The senator, after a history of angry outbursts in past campaigns, had appeared to be making an effort to be positive and to avoid making critical comments against his opponents. He has been generally successful, using his wit mostly in soft jibes rather than as a stiletto, as he sometimes has in the past.
But Mr. Dole lately has shown some testiness toward critics of his performance in responding to President Clinton's State of the Union message, and toward Mr. Forbes' use of his fortune to become his leading challenger here.
Speaking in a grain warehouse in Marshalltown on Monday, Mr. Dole turned sarcastic: "All you people who go to work in a helicopter [as Mr. Forbes has done], vote for Forbes. All of you, when you get out in your yacht, give him serious consideration.
"The election is not for sale," he said. "It doesn't go to the person who spends the most money. It doesn't go to the person who inherited the most money."
Mr. Dole said he was undisturbed by the poll in New Hampshire that had Mr. Forbes moving 5 percentage points ahead of him. In Iowa, he said, "we're holding steady, and gaining a little."
The controversial poll of 543 likely Republican and independent primary voters has Mr. Forbes leading Mr. Dole, 29 percent to 24 percent. The poll's margin of error of 5 percentage points would make the race essentially a dead heat. The poll has been criticized because the voting of independents in Republican primaries has been historically low.
Darrell Kearney, his campaign manager in Iowa, said later that he saw no falloff in Mr. Dole's strength here.
Mr. Dole, from neighboring Kansas, has long been popular here, having defeated George Bush and Pat Robertson in the Iowa caucuses in 1988. Still, Mr. Kearney said, "in a presidential campaign, when you're being attacked like that, you have to set the record straight." The Dole ad, however, rather than doing that, makes its own accusation against Mr. Forbes.
Mr. Kearney said the Dole campaign can't match Mr. Forbes ad " for ad, because spending limits imposed on Mr. Dole under the federal campaign spending law don't apply to Mr. Forbes because he's using his own money.
"You can go to Podunk Center," he said, "and if they have a radio station there, he's got an ad on it."
While Mr. Dole has now turned to negative ads on television, he continues to mention here such positive arguments as his strong support from Iowa's most popular politician, Sen. Charles E. Grassley. The latest Dole ad in Iowa shows the folksy Mr. Grassley enthusiastically boosting Mr. Dole to a farm audience.