NEW LONDON, N.H. -- Before the first presidential primary has even taken place, Republican candidate Steve Forbes appears to have lived an entire political life.
Soaring in the polls and on the cover of news magazines only weeks ago, the millionaire publisher looked as if he could be the upset victor in Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire.
Now, after a disappointing fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses brought on by a backlash to his storm of negative ads, he is struggling to stay in the race and hoping for, at best, a third-place finish.
'Things happen too quickly'
"Things happen too quickly," Mr. Forbes said Friday in interviews at a family restaurant here with his 16-year-old daughter, Moira, by his side. "Saturday's assumptions are obsolete by Sunday. It's part of the compression of the political season."
Having acknowledged that he made a mistake in Iowa, Mr. Forbes has revamped his campaign since his dismal showing there.
He has removed all of his negative ads from TV and radio and replaced them with spots that showcase his positions on education, health care and taxes.
While focusing on his agenda instead of attacking his opponents, the ads signal his new emphasis on topics other than the flat tax, his signature issue.
Polls have shown that voters in this tax-averse state, initially intrigued by the flat tax, have become increasingly suspicious of it, especially since it eliminates the mortgage interest deduction.
At Thursday night's debate, Mr. Forbes said that the flat tax was "only part of my agenda."
It is not clear whether Mr. Forbes has recovered from his stumble in Iowa -- and the perception that he is trying to buy the presidency with the more than $20 million of his own money that he has pumped into his candidacy so far.
But the change in strategy seems to have at least kept him in the game.
One poll shows him third
While some polls here have shown him dropping to fourth place behind Sen. Bob Dole, commentator Patrick Buchanan and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, at least one recent poll, by the American Research Group, shows him holding on to third place with 17 percent of the vote, behind Mr. Buchanan's 27 percent and Mr. Dole's 23 percent.
In that survey, Mr. Alexander ranks fourth with 12 percent.
William Dal Col, the Forbes campaign manager, says his poll tracking shows Mr. Forbes and Mr. Alexander in a dead heat.
In campaign events last week, Mr. Forbes appeared upbeat yet resigned to the possibility of a fast political fall.
Over a snack of English muffins and hot chocolate, he reflected on the roller coaster that has characterized his foray into politics.
"It's sort of the hazing process of American politics to see how well you hold up under the pressure," he said in an interview.
Still smarting from the Iowa experience, he compared the peaks and valleys of his political venture with the volatile career of House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"It was sort of Newtonian," Mr. Forbes said. "We had a honeymoon for about a week when they discovered this candidacy was real. Then another week was the exact opposite. Now I think we've hit on an even keel again."
In characteristically flat, analytical style, he said of the political process: "It's what it is. You know when you go into it it's part maelstrom, part meat grinder. It's going to be relentless. But it's not something you're forced into."
Asked if he would do it again, he said, "Yeah, clearly."
While his "outsider" label is still appealing to many here, the businessman appears to be losing favor even among fans because he is seeming less and less like a winner.
"Forbes was my first choice," said Spec Bowers, 47, a Grantham engineer, "but I think Alexander is a more complete candidate and has the best chance of knocking off Bob Dole."
Similarly, New London architect Deirdre Sheerr, 49, is torn between Mr. Forbes and Mr. Alexander.
She said she has reservations about the former governor's character and inner strength. "He doesn't sit as squarely in his shoes as Forbes does," said Ms. Sheerr, who attended a Rotary Club breakfast here where Mr. Forbes spoke. But she isn't sure the publishing magnate will be able to beat President Clinton.
Mr. Forbes, who has not refrained from attacking his opponents on the campaign trail even though he has halted the attacks on the airwaves, admits Mr. Clinton would be a formidable opponent for him.
"He certainly makes a better speech than I can," Mr. Forbes said at the Rotary breakfast. "He certainly makes you feel, with the puckered lip, that he understands you better than I can."
But he said later that what Mr. Clinton has in style, he lacks in substance, and that he believes voters "make a distinction."
Mr. Forbes is continuing to pour money into his campaign. He bought a half-hour of TV time tonight in New Hampshire where he will go on the air and take questions from callers.
He won't say what he will do if he fails to meet his "4-3-2-1" strategy -- fourth in Iowa, third in New Hampshire, second in Delaware and then a win in Arizona.
But, even as he insists he is "in for the duration" -- all the way to this summer's GOP convention in San Diego -- he hints that he is not as confident as he once was.
"I'll be in San Diego one way or t'other," the magazine publisher said.
L "Maybe with a press credential, but I think as the nominee."