IF HE'S NOMINATED next summer, George W. Bush will be the first Republican presidential candidate since Jerry Ford in 1976 to owe nothing to the conservative wing of the Republican party. If he goes on to win, he'll be the first elected Republican president since Eisenhower not obligated to the right. That does not mean that Bush will necessarily govern in an unconservative manner or that he'll be an unsuccessful president. It does, however, mean that his conservatism will be fitful and calculated -- least to be counted on when it is most needed. Which in turn means that if Bush should win the presidency, conservatives will need a champion of their own: somebody who can support the White House when it does the right thing (as Senator Robert Taft staunchly supported President Eisenhower's Korean peacemaking) and effectively oppose it when it does wrong (as Newt Gingrich opposed Bush the Elder's tax-hiking budget deal in 1990).

In 1999, for the first time since the half-decade from the death of Taft to the emergence of Barry Goldwater, no such champion exists. There is no shortage of conservative writers and commentators. But an ideological conservative who has submitted himself or herself to the test of the ballot box -- and won? Amazingly enough, there is no such person.

Pat Buchanan aspired to the job in 1992, and his impressive performance in that year's New Hampshire primary temporarily qualified him for it. But Buchanan is drifting ever further away from anything that might be called "conservatism" and toward an alliance with black Marxist Lenora Fulani and other fringe elements concerned about the undue influence of cosmopolitan international bankers upon American political life. Jack Kemp once expected the job to plop into his lap, but even he seems now to recognize that his spectacular self-immolation in 1996 put an end to his political career. Phil Gramm, staunch on the issues as he is, never won a national constituency. So who does that leave? Dan Quayle? Gary Bauer?

There's one man, however, who could fill the position, if he makes the right choice now. That man is Steve Forbes.

Over the past three years, Forbes has done an impressive job of winning the trust of economic and social conservatives alike. He holds principled views and expresses them in a principled way. He'd make an admirable national spokesman for conservatism except for one crucial detail: He has never proven he can win an election. Election-winning is not always a prerequisite for gaining the presidency. The Republican party has nominated political virgins four times this century -- William Howard Taft in 1908, Herbert Hoover in 1928, Wendell Willkie in 1940, and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 -- and won three times. But by now it should be clear that 2000 is no 1940, and that Forbes is extremely unlikely to scoop the nomination from George W. Bush.

Two weeks ago, however, the New York Post proposed a better outcome to Forbes's career dilemma. With New Jersey governor Christine Whitman's decision not to run for the Senate seat vacated by Democrat Frank Lautenberg, there is no strong Republican candidate for the very winnable senatorship in Forbes's home state. What if Forbes were to declare for it? With New Jersey Democrats facing a potentially bloody primary between Jon Corzine, a liberal zillionaire financier, and Jim Florio, a defeated former governor, Forbes's chances would be excellent.

As a senator, Forbes would command more attention and respect than he would as a twice-defeated candidate for president. He'd have the clout to keep the Bush administration on course, and his office would quickly become the national headquarters for disaffected Republicans should the administration drift off. He'd retain the option of mounting a more-credible-than-ever run for president in 2004, if Bush loses or his administration flops, or as a reelected senator in 2008, when he'd still be only 61.

Since World War II, there have been only four national conservative leaders: Taft, Goldwater, Reagan, and Gingrich. All four were practicing politicians and owed their leadership in some significant part to their political success. Steve Forbes has gone as far as he can go as a self-financed citizen-candidate. If he wants to claim the leader's chair, he's going to have to do the leader's work. That means avoiding a presidential race he is sure to lose, and entering a race that he can win and that will make him a national force in the event that he does win.

There's no disgrace in testing the water and drawing back if it's too cold. Reagan weighed and rejected a presidential run in 1968, and it didn't seem to do his career any harm. On the contrary, it's an unwillingness to run for anything other than the big prize that kills a would-be president's prospects. When Mario Cuomo sought a third term in 1990, New York Republicans begged Jack Kemp to oppose him. Kemp hesitated, and the nomination was instead scooped up by the eccentric economist Pierre Rinfret. Even so, Cuomo took only 53 percent of the vote. Where would Kemp be today if he had accomplished a stunning upset of liberalism's paladin nine years ago?

Of course, to make such a decision requires a rare set of qualities: astuteness, realism, boldness, self-discipline, and wisdom. Those, as it happens, are also the virtues Americans are entitled to expect from a president. Has Forbes got them?

David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of a forthcoming history of life in the 1970s, How We Got Here (Basic).

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