DES MOINES -- Like the calm before a storm, Iowa Republicans are somewhat nervously awaiting the next round of television ads by magazine publisher Steve Forbes here, hoping they will not replicate the destructive barrage he unloosed four years ago against 1996 presidential front-runner Bob Dole and other seekers after the GOP nomination.
The ads are due within a month, Mr. Forbes' strategists say, and they vow that they will be positive, in contrast to the brutally negative commercials the Forbes campaign ran in 1995-96 that undercut Mr. Dole's chances against President Clinton once he clinched the party nomination.
But the Iowa strategists for 2000 front-runner Texas Gov. George W. Bush are bracing for a possible repeat performance, and vow they will counter any below-the-belt antics by the Forbes camp with television ads of their own.
At the same time, the Republican state chairman, Kayne Robinson, warns that any repetition of the Forbes 1995-96 negative approach is likely to backfire on him within the party.
Reports have circulated suggesting Mr. Forbes will spend as much as $25 million in a television blitz that could extend right up to the Iowa precinct caucuses, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 31.
Bob Haus, an Iowa spokesman for the Forbes campaign, will say only that the television buy will be "substantial" and will stick to issues, not personalities.
As for the tone of the ads, the Forbes national campaign manager, Bill Dal Col, has been quoted by the Associated Press as saying "any issue advocacy we do would show the sharp contrast between Steve Forbes' conservative platform and George Bush's moderate mush."
But ads that strategists defend as "contrast" or simply "comparative" often sound and look very much like negative attacks to voters.
"You get into a quirky area on what's negative," Mr. Haus says, leaving the distinct impression that Mr. Forbes will be putting more heat on Mr. Bush than has been served up so far, at least in a more critical examination of where the governor stands on such key campaign issues as Social Security, education and tax cuts.
Mr. Robinson notes that Mr. Forbes' heavy television advertising over the summer was positive and issue-based, but he warns: "If Forbes runs negative ads, not just differences on issues, the activists [in the party] who go to the caucuses will be extremely angry. People want to win this thing [the presidency], and anyone who messes that up is going to see a firestorm of criticism from Iowans.
"People tell me, 'Do everything you can from keeping these candidates from destroying each other.' Don't organize ourselves in a circle and shoot each other."
Having said this, the state party chairman also observes that if anyone is to beat Mr. Bush in the Iowa caucuses, he or she will have to convince caucus-goers why the Texan should not be the nominee.
And if he has a vulnerability as a candidate so far, Mr. Robinson says, "it's escaped me." All this focus on Mr. Forbes' expected ads may leave the impression that the contest here has already been reduced to Mr. Bush and Mr. Forbes.
But Elizabeth Dole's third-place showing in the August poll, and her ability to bring new voters into the process, many of them women, without spending much money, have buoyed her team here.
Monte Shaw, her Iowa manager, says she has picked up considerable support from backers of Dan Quayle and Lamar Alexander, who have dropped out. And he suggests that Mrs. Dole as a middle-road conservative, and what he calls a "smiley-face" candidate, figures to be the chief beneficiary of any bruising fight on the airwaves between Mr. Forbes and Mr. Bush.
"When the dust clears," he says, "I think we'll be in pretty good shape."
Finding new support
All the remaining candidates, including Christian activist Gary Bauer, claim also to have found new recruits in the camps of the pullouts.
Mr. Bush has collared the most prominent of them in former Gov. Terry Branstad, but his support of Mr. Alexander could not save his candidacy.
Lt. Gov. Joy Corning has switched to Mrs. Dole. While Mr. Bush and Mr. Forbes brandish their campaign bankrolls in expectation of a costly "air war" between them, the others will continue to rely on grass-roots organizing -- while hoping the big-money candidates self-destruct with conspicuously excessive spending and tactics.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.