MASON CITY, Iowa -- Struggling to keep his once-soaring campaign from a downward slide, GOP presidential contender Steve Forbes hit the campaign trail yesterday, armed with his wife and five daughters and bold charges that Sen. Bob Dole was behind a dirty tricks campaign to smear him.
As polls showed his popularity dropping just two days before this state's caucuses, Mr. Forbes, who until lately has been congenial and mild-mannered in front of the cameras, stepped up his attacks on his opponents, especially the front-runner, Mr. Dole.
Speaking to reporters outside the 4-H building at the North Iowa Fairgrounds, he said he had evidence that Mr. Dole was behind a widespread campaign of anonymous phone calls to voters distorting his record on such issues as abortion, Social Security and the flat tax.
"It does seem to be evidence that this is an organized campaign," Mr. Forbes said. "We've always suspected it was. There have been tens of thousands of calls made as recently as last night in New Hampshire, distorting and smearing my record. It looks like one of these [phone bank] employees have charged that it is the Dole campaign. It looks like his campaign was involved with it."
Mr. Dole, also campaigning in the state yesterday, denied the charges to the Associated Press and compared them to conspiracy claims made by Ross Perot during his on-again, off-again presidential campaign in 1992.
"I think he is a little frustrated," Mr. Dole said of Mr. Forbes. "He is probably finding out that this is not softball."
Mr. Forbes' campaign manager, William A. Dal Col, told reporters yesterday that Michael Barry, a "disgruntled employee" of a phone bank company, Western WATS Center, called the Forbes headquarters in Iowa with information about the anonymous calls.
According to Mr. Dal Col, the employee said Western WATS had been contracted by the Dole campaign to call voters in Iowa, Alaska and New Hampshire and ask them if they were aware that Mr. Forbes favored abortion on demand and gays in the military. Mr. Barry told the Forbes campaign that the contract with the phone bank company, which is based in Provo, Utah, stipulated that they not identify for whom they were working, according to Mr. Dal Col.
Mr. Barry could not be reached for comment. But Western WATS in a statement said it did not engage in polling that disparaged candidates. It acknowledged, however, that it had done work for the Dole campaign.
Meanwhile, the Iowa Farm Bureau issued a statement yesterday saying that some members had received anti-Forbes calls from people falsely claiming to represent the farm bureau.
Mr. Forbes seemed to try to blunt some of the increasing heat he's been receiving by bringing to the front lines his wife, Sabina, and his five daughters, who range in age from 8 to 22.
At the 4-H hall, the daughters, with matching beauty-pageant smiles, paraded up and down the rows of tables and chairs to greet the crowd. Even 8-year-old Elizabeth, clutching a doll while her father spoke, was signing autographs.
But even then, with his family by his side, Mr. Forbes appeared to be bristling under the stepped-up attacks. The publishing magnate has been criticized for saturating the airwaves with negative ads about his opponents. Mr. Dole has been striking back with his own negative ads that challenge Mr. Forbes' flat-tax proposal and truthfulness.
And Mr. Forbes has been losing ground with religious conservatives, a powerful force in this state's electorate, over what they believe is his vague, and soft, position on abortion. Mr. Forbes has said he opposes abortion but does not believe it can be outlawed until there is a change in public opinion.
In his charge against the Dole campaign, Mr. Forbes called for the Senate majority leader to confront him "face to face" on the issues.
"He calls himself a tested leader," Mr. Forbes said of his chief rival.
"A tested leader should once in a while face an opponent and discuss real issues in an open forum. He ought to show the American people that he does not stand behind anonymous phone callers, does not stand behind surrogates, that he can actually face an opponent face to face."
In a final effort to regain some of his momentum -- and a final splurge in an extravagant campaign here -- Mr. Forbes is airing a 30-minute movie about himself that, between yesterday and tomorrow, will be broadcast on television stations throughout the state 21 times.