FOR THE SECOND election in a row, a multi-millionaire trying to make the big leap from citizen to president is churning the political pot. Last time it was Ross Perot, who spent $60 million of his own money running as an independent. He took 19 percent of the vote, perhaps enough to swing the election from George Bush to Bill Clinton.
This time out the big spender is Republican Steve Forbes. With a cash flow reaching $20 million, he has come from nowhere to challenge the faltering front-runner, Bob Dole, with an avalanche of no-holds-barred attack ads.
For Senator Dole, the past week has been one long nightmare. It started with a dour response to President Clinton's upbeat State of the Union address and ended with a poor third-place finish in an Alaska straw poll. Campaigning in Iowa, the Mr. Dole's frustration erupted: "This election is not for sale. It doesn't go to the person with the most money. It doesn't go to the person who inherited the most money."
Or does it?
The 1968 campaign produced "The Selling of the President," a book describing the way spin masters crafted a "new" Richard Nixon who went on to win the White House. A shocker at the time, these techniques are old hat now.
Today it is more precise to talk about "The Buying of the President," the title of one book already on the market. Mr. Perot insisted on spending his own money. Mr. Forbes, more cautiously, is lending funds to his own campaign on the supposition that he might get it back with fund-raisers both before and after election day.
The situation is enough to dredge up sympathy for old pols who, in accepting federal election funds, also accepted spending limits that Steve Forbes can top by any amount he wishes. What began as a campaign financing plan to give candidates of limited means the wherewithal to run for public office now allows a multi-millionaire to purchase instant fame with personal funds that can later be recouped. The basic problem is a system that turns virtually all politicians (with the exception of fat cats) into perpetual money-grubbers -- all for the sake of buying television time.
For a Capitol Hill veteran like Senator Dole, the bitter irony is that he helped craft the system that now threatens to undermine his last best bid for the White House.