WASHINGTON -- As supporters chanted "Steve 2000," an upbeat Steve Forbes ended his Republican presidential campaign here yesterday with a pledge to keep promoting the flat-tax idea he had pushed so fervently.
In withdrawing from the race, he endorsed Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the likely Republican nominee. But Mr. Forbes did so somewhat perfunctorily, at least at first, describing the Senate majority leader, in essence, as the lesser of two evils in a general-election matchup with President Clinton.
"I ran in this race not to be someone but to do something," said the millionaire publishing heir, surrounded by friends and family, including his wife, Sabina, and their five daughters, who wiped tears from their eyes. "Our journey has just begun."
Mr. Forbes, who declined to rule out a second run for public office, set a record in his first try. He said he spent somewhere between $25 million and $40 million of his personal fortune more than any presidential primary candidate in history. His wealth has been estimated to be in excess of $400 million.
In light of his failure to win, "it was obviously too much or not enough," he joked. But, he added, "despite my Scottish blood, I do not begrudge the money, even if perhaps, sometimes, my kids, looking to the future, did."
When he began his campaign six months ago, Mr. Forbes noted, few in politics or the news media took him seriously. But what he lacked in experience or national reputation he made up for with his wealth, which allowed him to push his candidacy, and attack his opponents, by flooding the airwaves of the early primary and caucus states with campaign ads.
"People say that I spent a lot of money in this campaign, and it's true," Mr. Forbes told the crowd of some 150 supporters and perhaps an equal number of reporters and photographers in the basement ballroom of a Washington hotel. "But let me tell you, I believe I made the best investment any of us can make. I tried to make my country a better, stronger and finer place, and I'll continue to work for that."
Because he used his own money, Mr. Forbes was free to outspend his rivals, who, in agreeing to accept federal matching funds, are supposed to abide by spending ceilings, both in individual states and nationwide.
Much of his campaign cash was used for ads assailing Mr. Dole as a Washington insider who routinely broke his campaign promises not to raise taxes. And though he said Mr. Dole now had his wholehearted support, he could not help laughing when a reporter mentioned the senator's assertion that Mr. Forbes had tried to buy the election.
"I bet you that won't stop them from asking for a contribution," he said.
Mr. Forbes said he would do what he could to help the Republican ticket in the fall, though he said he had not yet been asked by Mr. Dole to do so or, for that matter, received a call from him.
Praising Mr. Dole, he said that "there is character there. And you look at the White House and you don't see that kind of character there. That's going to hold [Mr. Dole] in very good stead as this campaign heats up."
Mr. Dole, who made no secret of his dislike for Mr. Forbes and his inherited wealth, which Mr. Forbes used to try to undermine the senator's candidacy, welcomed the endorsement in remarks a campaign stop in Illinois. "That's history," he said of their primary battle. Mr. Forbes left the race the same way he entered it, promoting his idea of a single-rate income tax that would end deductions for home mortgage interest and charitable gifts and not cover investment income. He said it would stimulate economic growth, give families and the government more to spend, and curb political corruption by ending expensive efforts to manipulate the tax code.
"It's not whether it'll happen; it's just a matter of when it will happen," he predicted.
But Mr. Dole has pointedly refused to embrace such a plan, suggesting that there are less drastic ways to simplify the tax system. And many Republicans believe that even if their party wins the White House, the flat-tax idea will not get far over the next few years.
Mr. Forbes indicated that he would return to the business magazine he inherited from his father, the late Malcolm S. Forbes Sr. He ducked an opportunity to criticize another former opponent, Patrick J. Buchanan, whom he likened this week to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, adding: "Maybe my two pages of editorials will once again be dispensing advice, not only to Pat, but to everyone else in the world."
Pub Date: 3/15/96