WASHINGTON - Steve Forbes, a political novice whose personal fortune and single-minded advocacy of a flat tax made him a major player in this year's Republican presidential contest, is quitting the race, his campaign announced yesterday.
The magazine publisher will formally announce his withdrawal in Washington today. He is expected to endorse Sen. Bob Dole, whose string of 18 primary victories has made him the presumptive party nominee.
Mr. Forbes appeared to be teetering on the edge of folding his campaign yesterday morning, during an hourlong session with reporters. He referred repeatedly to his candidacy in the past tense, even as he maintained that he was pushing ahead in hopes of scoring a "major breakthrough" in next week's Midwestern primaries.
"You learn in public life that you don't master everything," he said. "Events can sometimes master you."
After spending the day in talks with his advisers, Mr. Forbes was persuaded to end his bid.
Polls show him trailing Mr. Dole by 40 to 50 percentage points in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois, which will hold primaries Tuesday.
His departure leaves Patrick J. Buchanan as the only major Republican challenger to Mr. Dole. Mr. Buchanan, who trails Mr. Forbes in the delegate count, insists that he will keep his candidacy going all the way to the nominating convention in August.
Mr. Dole, who is expected to clinch the nomination in the next two weeks, plans to head today to Illinois.
Since entering the race last fall, Mr. Forbes has spent an estimated $25 million to $30 million of his vast wealth, much of it on television ads attacking Mr. Dole and the other Republican contenders. The negative ad barrage depicting Mr. Dole, in one example, as a typical Washington politician who could not be trusted to keep his word to hold down taxes did serious damage to the senator's image.
At the same time, Mr. Forbes' outsider message and his pet idea replacing the progressive income tax with a simple 17 percent flat tax captured the interest of some Republican voters, especially in New Hampshire, the first primary state.
Leader for a time
For a time in January, Mr. Forbes led Mr. Dole in opinion polls there and was gaining on him in Iowa, the first caucus state. But Mr. Dole countered with a heavily negative response. The Senate majority leader labeled Mr. Forbes as untested and suspiciously liberal, and warned middle-class voters that the flat tax would cost them money.
In the end, Mr. Dole managed to scrape by in Iowa and lost New Hampshire and Arizona, then came roaring back once the campaign hit the Deep South. But the Forbes challenge dented his aura of invincibility and forced him to spend more heavily in the early states than he had planned, leaving his campaign near the $37 million spending limit almost five months before the convention.
Mr. Forbes won primaries in Delaware and Arizona. But neither he nor his flat tax could withstand the media scrutiny and attacks from Mr. Dole and much of the Republican establishment. By this week, Republican primary voters who listed taxes as their top concern were as likely to vote for Mr. Dole as they were for Mr. Forbes, exit polls showed.
Mr. Forbes said this week that he would stay in the race at least through the California primary on March 26 to spread his flat tax message. But even as he was insisting yesterday that he would press on, his news conference had a valedictory air.
He displayed pride in having fared far better than anyone anticipated when he entered the race. He noted, in passing, that he had lasted longer than Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who had been considered, erroneously as it turned out, to be Mr. Dole's most serious challenger.
Unlike Mr. Buchanan, who says he'll battle to protect the party's strict anti-abortion plank, Mr. Forbes has no intention of waging a fight to see his ideas incorporated in the platform. He also lacks the troops to do so: He will have only about 70 delegates out of 2,000 at the San Diego convention.
"The platform will reflect the wishes of the nominee," he said. "I'm looking beyond the platform."
Mr. Forbes said he expects the flat tax to get a fair hearing in Congress, adding that the idea "is at a critical crossroads." He contended that the one-rate income tax plan, which is being promoted by House Majority Leader Dick Armey and others, had been given a huge boost by his candidacy.
'Eventually we will prevail'
Until he joined the race in September, Mr. Forbes said, the flat tax "really wasn't at the top of anybody's radar screen."
"Eventually we will prevail," he said. "Eventually the [political] leaders [will] take their cue from their followers."
But he insisted that he had not run merely to promote tax reform.
"I got in to win the nomination," he said, noting that he had pushed other controversial ideas, including making radical changes in Social Security.
He rejected the notion that his personal wealth estimated at more than $400 million had been a political handicap.
Although it allowed his self-financed campaign to avoid federal campaign spending limits, it also left him open to criticism, including the fact that he would receive a financial windfall if his flat tax ever became law, since his plan would not tax investment income.
Instead, Mr. Forbes blamed this year's compressed primary schedule for the failure of his candidacy. With more than two dozen primaries this month, "you don't have the opportunity to spread yourself over a number of states," he said.
Mr. Forbes, once acidly dismissed by Mr. Buchanan as a liberal "Rockefeller Republican," noted with a wry laugh that Nelson A. Rockefeller had won Oregon's primary in 1964 with the slogan: "He cared enough to come."
"I didn't even get to Oregon," said Mr. Forbes, who finished a distant third there on Tuesday.
By contrast, he said, he won last month's Arizona primary because he was able to spend weeks campaigning there.
"You can't do that with these later states," he said. "That makes it very difficult."
Pub Date: 3/14/96