WASHINGTON -- In November, a representative of Steve Forbes' political advertising agency made a fateful phone call to Julie Campasano, who books political ads at WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H.
"They wanted to do a 'megabulk buy' -- that's what they called it," Ms. Campasano recalled. "They wanted tonnage, they wanted frequency, they wanted to be wherever they could be. They wanted to buy every stitch of advertising they could get -- and they darn near did. They had a walloping schedule."
Financing his own upstart campaign, Mr. Forbes, heir to the Forbes publishing fortune, has turned the Republican presidential primary season upside down, riding his estimated $25 million media blitz to near the top of the polls in New Hampshire. As many as 85 percent of voters there say they have seen his ads.
Having devoted far less time than his opponents to press-the-flesh campaigning, Mr. Forbes is providing a test of how much public opinion can be shaped by relentless political advertising.
Age-old debates rage in political circles about what kind of ads work best: positive ads, negative ads, informational ads, feel-good ads, response ads or deceptive ads. But Mr. Forbes' ad campaign is not likely to answer those questions -- he's using them all.
His first ad, which hit the airwaves Sept. 14, introduced Mr. Forbes and his plan for a simple 17-percent "flat" tax -- with a positive message about the candidate.
"Words that rule our lives," intoned an announcer. Three images then accompanied script:
"The Declaration of Independence: 1,300 words
"The Bible -- the Word of God: 773,000 words
"The tax code -- the words of the politicians: 7 million, and growing."
Mr. Forbes then appears on camera. "Our tax code is monstrous, dishonest and riddled with loopholes," he says. "I say scrap it and replace it with a low, simple flat tax with $36,000 tax-free for a family of four."
It concludes: "Steve Forbes for President. The only Republican who will change Washington."
Inoffensive as the ads were, they were produced by three North Carolinians -- Tom Ellis, Carter Wrenn and John McLaughlin -- with reputations for negative campaigning. Democrats on the losing end of their ad campaigns warned that it wouldn't take long for them to "go negative." It didn't.
By early October, the Forbes campaign had targeted the Republican front-runner.
"The Senate was to vote on term limits Oct. 12, but it didn't," one ad said. "Would you believe Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole canceled the vote, so there will be no term limits in the Senate this year?" Mr. Forbes then appeared on screen, saying: "Senator Dole is wrong. Term limits will restore honesty to Washington -- and that's the kind of change we need."
At a time when Republicans traditionally slam the Democratic incumbent more than they do each other, this ad sent a jolt through the party establishment. It was also misleading.
Last March, Mr. Dole had promised 11 Republican freshmen that he would bring to the Senate floor a constitutional amendment to require term limits for members of Congress. By October, that effort had faltered.
It mustered a majority in the House, but nowhere near the two-thirds it needed. Knowing they lacked enough votes in the Senate, nine of the 11 Senate freshmen persuaded Mr. Dole to delay the vote until April. Mr. Dole had simply complied with their wishes.
On Oct. 31, Mr. Forbes aired a radio ad asserting that "since 1982, Bob Dole has voted for 16 tax increases" totaling $962 billion. In January, the campaign became more specific, and more negative. "Should Congress have spent $6 million of taxpayers' money for an Idaho ski resort?" asked one ad. "Bob Dole voted to increase taxpayer-funded congressional pensions," asserted another.
Both ads ended the same way: "Two men. Different values. Bob Dole -- Washington values. Steve Forbes -- conservative values."
Worked for Jesse Helms
To North Carolina Democrats, who'd complained about the unfairness of Mr. Wrenn's negative attacks, these ads were eerily familiar. Some recalled one used in 1990 by the same team of advisers against Democrat Harvey Gantt The ad ended: "Harvey Gantt: Extreme liberal values. Jesse Helms, North Carolina values."
"It's like watching a rerun," said Gary Pierce, an aide to Jim Hunt, who lost to Mr. Helms in 1984. The Forbes attack ads also used a favorite device of the Carter Wrenn team: portraying an obscure procedural vote as something that reveals hidden vices of the target candidate.
The $6 million for the Idaho ski development, for instance, was inserted into a $14 billion spending bill at the insistence of another senator. Mr. Dole could have stopped it only by stopping the whole bill -- the very reason that Senate Republicans, Mr. Dole included, favor giving presidents the power to veto individual items in a spending bill.
The second claim -- that Mr. Dole voted to increase his pension -- is extrapolated from votes he took raising the salaries of federal workers. One side effect of those votes is to raise pensions, including Mr. Dole's. So this claim was technically accurate.
Mr. Forbes was on thinner ice in an ad he ran as a rebuttal to a Dole ad that asserted that Mr. Forbes had opposed the three-strikes-and-you're-out law. "I believe in one strike and you're out," the Forbes ad stated. "Bob Dole -- deceiving voters."
But who was deceiving whom? In his Forbes magazine column, Mr. Forbes characterized the "three-strikes" law as "inflexible and arbitrary" and called for a "different approach," namely requiring criminals to serve all or most of the sentences they receive.
Not content just to attack the front-runner, Mr. Forbes then took on candidates far below him in the polls. The first ads, which targeted Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, ran on Jan. 29.
These ads pointed out that Mr. Gramm has not supported the flat tax, had voted over the years for various tax increases and accused him of brokering the 1990 budget deal between President George Bush and the Democrats that raised taxes, mostly for the well-off: "Phil Gramm: just another Washington politician."
Mr. Gramm, who has also sponsored several tax cuts, fired back with an ad calling the Forbes attack "deceitful."
Rebuttal of rebuttal
It pointed out that the Texas senator voted against the budget deal when it came up for a vote. But then the Forbes team rushed onto the airwaves with a rebuttal of Gramm's rebuttal. It showcased news reports confirming that Mr. Gramm helped negotiate the deal.
Next, Mr. Forbes' campaign took out after an even less likely target, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander.
"What's behind Lamar Alexander and his flannel shirt?" the ad asks. "Lamar Alexander brags he balanced budgets as governor. But he doesn't tell you he raised taxes four times to do it while doubling state spending. Running for president, Lamar Alexander collects $295,000 a year from his law firm that lobbies for special interests in Washington. Lamar Alexander. He won't change Washington, he'll fit right in."
The Alexander camp was furious because this attack violated a rule of political sportsmanship: You don't pile on a guy whose campaign is floundering. As for the accusations, Mr. Alexander's aides challenged only one point -- the one about lobbying. They said he had agreed when he joined the firm that he wouldn't lobby -- and that he hasn't. But Mr. Alexander did take a leave of absence from his firm after the Forbes ad ran.
As Mr. Forbes soared past the second-tier candidates to the higher elevations where Mr. Dole had stood alone, the Dole campaign took aim at him in its ads.
"For 17 years, Steve Forbes opposed a balanced budget amendment, calling [it] 'bogus,' and writing, 'We don't need a balanced budget amendment,' " the Dole ads said. "As a political candidate he shifted his position."
As always, the Forbes camp responded on TV: "Bob Dole is running another distorted, negative ad. Steve Forbes supports a balanced budget amendment that will cut taxes and make it harder for politicians to raise taxes."
Actually, the original Dole ad was accurate. For years, writing his column in the magazine that bears his name, Mr. Forbes championed supply-side economics. Supply-siders tend to believe that lowering the federal deficit is less important than cutting taxes.
"We don't really need a balanced budget amendment," he said in 1992. Then, in 1994, he stated: "The U.S. Senate once narrowly defeated a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Good thing, too."
In recent days, however, it has been Mr. Dole who mangled the facts. A recent ad featured Stephen Merrill, the popular governor of New Hampshire, saying Mr. Forbes' flat tax would cost the average New Hampshire homeowner $2,000.
This was a distortion. In fact, the family described by the Dole campaign would pay $4,400 less under the Forbes flat tax -- as Dole aides privately concede.
Publicly, the Dole forces haven't backed down. Governor Merrill has taken to lashing out at the press, which pointed out the error, and at Mr. Forbes, who's asked him to retract the ad.
Mr. Forbes, defending his own negative ads, has said that pointing out differences on issues such as taxing and spending is a legitimate function of any campaign.
"It is fair and just to point out an opponent's record," says Gretchen Morgenson, the Forbes campaign spokeswoman. "If Bob Dole wants to run on his record -- as the 'seasoned' politician -- he's got to defend that record."
She also said that half the Forbes ads have been positive ads.
Still, because it was Mr. Forbes who went negative first -- and because some ads contained distortions -- neutral observers express little sympathy for Mr. Forbes.
"Forbes has a large number of ads on the air, and there's something problematic about most of them, while two of Dole's are misleading," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "Forbes is still clearly the champion of misleading ads."