DES MOINES, Iowa -- As political novice Steve Forbes faces his first formal test of voting strength tonight in Iowa's caucuses, at his side will be a little-known political operative who literally runs the Forbes campaign out of a briefcase.
He is William Dal Col, 39, a Cornell graduate in agronomy from Babylon, N.Y., who was chief of staff to former Bush administration housing secretary Jack Kemp.
As the Forbes national campaign manager, he travels almost constantly with the candidate. They met when Mr. Forbes was chairman of Empower America, the conservative think tank founded by Mr. Kemp and Reagan Cabinet member William Bennett, and Mr. Dal Col was the group's president.
Unlike most national campaign managers who sit behind a desk at the national headquarters and think deep strategy, Mr. Dal Col functions as Mr. Forbes' travel guide through the unfamiliar labyrinth of big-time politics, always on the lookout for potholes. DTC "It's unusual," Mr. Dal Col says, "but he's a brand-new candidate, with a new campaign."
The nearly $3 million that has been spent by the campaign in Iowa is Mr. Forbes' money. But among Mr. Dal Col's tasks is writing the checks, a job that, in other campaigns, usually falls to a green-eyeshade wearer at national headquarters.
"I sign the checks, keep the schedule, keep the budget and approve all scripts," he says. "Steve signs off on everything before it goes out."
Having the open Forbes checkbook at his disposal gives Mr. Dal Col a distinct advantage.
"We haven't discussed budget," he says, quoting Mr. Forbes' pat answer about money: "Being of Scottish descent, we'll spend what it takes to get our message out, and not a penny more."
Nationally, Mr. Dal Col says, $18 million was spent through the end of 1995, and some millions more in January.
With a huge chunk of that $18-plus million going into television and radio advertising, Mr. Forbes' operational hierarchy is surprisingly spare for a campaign accused by opponents of spending with abandon to buy the 1996 presidential election.
Mr. Dal Col, who ran the Reagan-Bush campaign in New York state in 1984, heads a seven-member inner circle that has very little national campaign experience for a candidate who probably could hire the country's most prominent political consultants. Only Carter Wrenn, the controversial media man associated with hard-hitting negative commercials, is very well known in national politics.
The others are Mr. Forbes himself, brother Tim Forbes, pollster John McLaughlin, Forbes magazine editor Gretchen Morgenson as press secretary and former Reagan speechwriter Josh Gilbert. Last July, former Ronald Reagan campaign manager John Sears had preliminary talks with the candidate but plays no role today, Mr. Dal Col says.
The campaign headquarters is in Somerset, N.J., but with Mr. Dal Col traveling with the candidate, this inner circle functions usually through what he calls "teleconferences." He insists that Mr. Forbes is his own chief strategist, deciding what to say and when, and what television and radio ads to run and when, even to the final editing of all scripts.
Such a modus operandi would be a severe task for an experienced campaigner, let alone a novice like Mr. Forbes. But Mr. Dal Col insists that his boss takes on all this detail work himself. The candidate's ability to deliver his long stump speech repeatedly word for word without a script is possible, Mr. Dal Col says, because it originated in Mr. Forbes' head.
The campaign's early media strategy, using positive ads focusing on Mr. Forbes' proposal for a flat 17 percent income tax with an exception of $36,000 for a family of four, was widely
credited with Mr. Forbes' steep climb in the polls. But a switch to negative advertising against opponents Bob Dole and Phil Gramm in late fall, after a further boost for Mr. Forbes, has come under increasing criticism for content and frequency.
The Des Moines Register reported yesterday that its Iowa Poll found that 46 percent of voters surveyed now have a generally unfavorable view of Mr. Forbes, compared to only 26 percent about two months ago. Mr. Dal Col says the attack ads were planned all along but were triggered by Mr. Dole misrepresenting the Dole record.
The Forbes strategy of negative advertising has been answered in kind by Mr. Dole and other candidates, causing widespread expressions of disgust from Iowa voters, who in the past have taken pride in high-road campaigns conducted here.
The risk for Mr. Forbes is that his early image as a political outsider bringing a fresh voice to the process will be undermined by the negative tone of the campaign to which he has greatly contributed.
Mr. Dal Col, like most campaign managers, insists that the Forbes ads are not negative, only "comparative," matching opponents' records with their words and deeds. But pure comparative ads usually match one candidate's words or record with those of another on a given issue.
Whatever the outcome of tonight's Iowa caucuses, Mr. Forbes ** says it will be on to New Hampshire's Feb. 20 primary and beyond to the Republican convention. And Bill Dal Col, the itinerant manager, will be at his side, on the lookout for political potholes.