At the end of September, the various candidates running for president released their financial statements. Beneath the minutiae was a striking fact: So far this year, Steve Forbes and George W. Bush have spent roughly the same amount of money, about $ 20 million. But that number alone doesn't tell the most interesting story. Forbes has been running for president more or less continuously since the fall of 1995. Since then he has spent -- depending on how you count it -- anywhere from $ 60 to $ 75 million. The vast majority has been his own money -- money that Forbes, rich as he is, didn't have sitting in his checking account. An investigation by the New York Times found that Forbes has relatively few liquid assets, and that in order to finance his career in politics he has had to sell off part of his stake in his family-owned company. After four years of campaigning, Steve Forbes is no longer the majority shareholder of Forbes Inc.
What has Forbes received in return? In mid-October, USA Today released the results of a poll that asked Republicans who they planned to vote for in 2000. George W. Bush had by far the most support, 60 percent. John McCain had 8 percent. Steve Forbes came in at a mere 4 percent, in a statistical dead heat with Alan Keyes and Orrin Hatch.
For Forbes, politics has been an expensive hobby. Except, as has become abundantly clear, Forbes doesn't consider it a hobby. In contrast to Hatch and Keyes, Forbes isn't running on a lark or as a form of protest. He's not attempting to prove a point, or make a statement, or drive up his speaking fees after the election. Steve Forbes is running for president so he can become president. That's the only reason. And perhaps the strangest reason.
You get the sense that Forbes isn't kidding the moment you walk into his campaign headquarters in Northern Virginia. The first thing you notice about the place is how different it is from Forbes's former, real-life office in New York. The Forbes magazine building in Manhattan, where Forbes spent his professional life until the last election, is grand but surprisingly homey. Though the company maintains a large display of rare documents and Faberge eggs on the first floor, there are no obvious security cameras or armed guards. The bathrooms off the lobby are wood-paneled, unlocked and open to the public. When he ran the magazine, Forbes routinely walked down to the reception desk himself to escort visitors back to his office. In person, he was charming in a self-deprecating way. He laughed and grinned and giggled a lot, often at himself. He talked enthusiastically about baseball. He returned his own phone calls without the usual "please-hold-for-Mr.-Forbes" power displays. He had a funny haircut. He did not, in short, seem like the kind of guy who would blow his family fortune ego-tripping through a midlife crisis.
His campaign headquarters, on the other hand, looks like something designed by Ross Perot. A humorless uniformed guard with a buzz cut sits at a table outside the door taking names and handing out electronic passes, which visitors are instructed to wear around their necks. ("Sign your name," demands the guard, thrusting forward a log book; "do not initial.") Inside, the campaign office -- which takes up an entire floor of a sizable building, leased until November 2000 -- seems more like a large corporation than the headquarters of a third-tier candidate. There are divisions upon divisions, with weirdly bureaucratic labels: "Office of Coalitions," "Political Ops.," "Polling Division," "Budgeting," "Ballot Operations," "Legal Office," "Finance," "Candidate Operations." (It's difficult to imagine that the Keyes campaign has a similar organizational chart.) On the walls are dozens, maybe hundreds, of pictures of Steve Forbes.
Then there is the staff. Forbes 2000 may be doomed, but no one seems to have told the people who work there. Forbes spokesmen churn out an amazing amount of propaganda, much of it about as subtle as a head injury. The campaign is famous for badgering television news producers ("I get to work and I've already got three messages from them on my machine," sighs one) as well as for the relentlessly pedantic, overbearing spin. The morning after Forbes gave a notably mediocre performance in a New Hampshire forum with other second-string GOP candidates, campaign flack Keith Appell sent an e-mail to reporters clumsily declaring victory. "The inaugural debate of campaign 2000 showed why Steve Forbes is going to win," Appell wrote in a message dripping with the campaign's signature irony-free fervor. "The big loser: George Bush."
Laughably ineffective as this is, there is nothing cut-rate or unprofessional about most of Forbes's staff. In 1995, Forbes hired campaign manager Bill DalCol, who has subsequently brought on a number of well-regarded Republican campaign operatives, many with experience in previous presidential races: former Buchanan strategist Greg Mueller to oversee communications, Reagan-Bush veteran Rick Ahearn to head the advance office, longtime New York pollster John McLaughlin to do surveys, and Gary Maloney, a notoriously hardball opposition researcher, to dig up damaging stories about George W. Bush. As of last week, Forbes 2000 had 12 campaign offices around the country, staffed by 113 full-time employees, not including consultants and paid advisers.
All of them seem to be working hard, though none harder than the candidate himself. In contrast to Ross Perot, who spent wildly but rarely left his compound in Dallas, Forbes has hit the campaign trail like a man half his age and five tax brackets poorer. He happily accepts any and all offers to talk to reporters. (For this story, Forbes called me back, personally, four times.) His staff estimates he has done 3,500 interviews since the latest campaign began. He tapes a daily radio commentary, gives speeches constantly, spends virtually his entire life on buses and commercial airplanes (he no longer has his own). Since early spring he has traveled to more than 40 states. In the first three weeks of October alone, Forbes made campaign appearances in Wyoming, New Jersey, Missouri, Louisiana, Washington, South Carolina, Seattle, Atlanta, Delaware, California, Alabama, and London. He made three separate trips to Iowa and two to New Hampshire. At one point he flew from England to an event in California in the space of a single day.
Forbes admits that he hasn't taken a day off since sometime in August (he can't seem to remember exactly when) and doesn't plan to again until Thanksgiving, but claims he isn't exhausted or even particularly tired. Bill DalCol, who oversees his schedule, doesn't seem to care if he is. "He understands the mission at hand," DalCol says with no hint of a smile. "He only has to keep it up through April or May."
The question is, Why would he want to? Despite his best efforts, his campaign seems to be going nowhere at great expense. Why not hang it up now and with dignity, take early retirement to a private island and spend the next 30 years sipping fruity cocktails and making targeted campaign donations? Or, better yet, why not use what has become a formidable campaign organization to run for and win the open Senate seat in New Jersey? Forbes won't even dignify the question with an answer. "The Bush people have been fanning that for weeks," he says. "My feeling is that if Hillary can run in New York, I'd be very supportive if Governor Bush was to run in New Jersey." Forbes has delivered the line countless times, but he still snorts with what sounds like genuine laughter as he says it.
His staff, however, doesn't see the humor. Ask why Forbes is still in the race and you'll get blank stares followed by a patient lecture explaining that everything is going precisely according to plan, down to the 4 percent USA Today poll. "We're right where we need to be," says DalCol. "I don't know that we'd want to be in any stronger position right now." That's right, says Greg Mueller. "The campaign, we feel, is in a very good position."
How can smart people say things like this? For starters, the Forbes people dismiss national polls as meaningless in a Republican primary. "Who's actually pulling the levers?" asks Mueller. "It's not the people reflected in Newsweek polls." Rather, they claim (with some justification), that the only people who matter in a primary are the Republican faithful, the fabled Base, who for the most part are conservatives. And conservatives prefer Forbes -- who, since the implosion of the Quayle, Buchanan, and Bob Smith campaigns, is the only true conservative left in the race.
That's the idea. Never mind that it ignores the existence of Gary Bauer, another true conservative whose presence poses a real threat to Forbes's performance in the Iowa caucus. (In public, Forbes staffers pretend to be not quite sure who Bauer is. John McCain, meanwhile, is written off as moderate and therefore irrelevant to the strategy.) The real problem with the Forbes scenario is that it ends there. Forbes strategists can go on for hours about the weaknesses of the Bush campaign -- too liberal, wildly bloated, insufferably arrogant, etc., etc. -- but ask them how, exactly, their candidate is going to win the nomination and they become notably inarticulate.
They are particularly vague when it comes to individual primaries. All point out that in past elections underdogs have frequently done better than expected, while a long lists of front-runners have crashed and burned. Pollster John McLaughlin likes to remind reporters that in the fall of 1979, Sen. Ted Kennedy was far and away the favorite in the 1980 election, beating Ronald Reagan in surveys by two to one. Others resurrect the memory of Pat Buchanan, who months before the 1996 New Hampshire primary was trailing Bob Dole by 40 points. Buchanan, of course, wound up winning.
You might assume that the moral of the story is that Steve Forbes has a real chance to take New Hampshire. But no. Forbes staffers don't seem to expect a victory there. Or, for that matter, in Iowa, the state where Forbes has spent the most time and money. In fact, it's not clear what state the Forbes campaign expects to win. At first, Bill DalCol seems to suggest a Bush rout will come early. "We've got to take Bush out within the first eight," he says. Asked how and where this will take place, DalCol hedges. "It would be helpful if we won one," he explains. Forbes himself indicates that losing the first eight primaries would not necessarily be enough to force him from the race. "It depends on the circumstances at the time," he says.
After a while it becomes clear that Forbes plans to stay in the race for a long, long time, regardless of how he fares in the early primaries. And, in fact, staying in for a long time is at the heart of what passes for his strategy. Even if Forbes were to lose eight primaries in a row, even if John McCain were to win New Hampshire, thereby becoming the undisputed alternative to Bush, the Forbes people argue that their candidate would still be the only credible challenger, simply because he has the most money. And once everyone but Bush drops out for lack of cash, Forbes will still have the reserves to hammer the front-runner with negative ads (or "engage him with our message," as Greg Mueller puts it) and ultimately topple him.
Just about every political professional outside the Forbes campaign regards this scenario as borderline crackpot. In fact, early victories are crucial. In 1996, Forbes's surprisingly poor showing in Iowa (he was expected to place second; he came in fourth) cost him 10 points in New Hampshire overnight. He never recovered. Forbes strategists don't seem to understand that if McCain (or, for that matter, Bauer) actually won an upset victory in an early primary state, his fund-raising would jump accordingly. More important even, an upset winner gets so much free media attention, it can catapult him ahead in other states. Winning primaries, in other words, is the only way to win primaries. Which one do the Forbes people think he can win? If they have one in mind, it's a closely held secret.
Instead of victories, they would rather talk about money, a subject on which Forbes and his staff appear to have bought their own spin. "He's Lamar with money," says Steve Schmidt, who, as the former communications director of Alexander 2000, ought to know. "Steve Forbes is not going to be president of the United States," declares James Carville, a connoisseur (despite his partisan hackery on television) of strategy and technical skill in politics. "I think you or I would have a better chance of winning. I know of no other political person -- Republican or Democrat -- who doesn't agree with me."
The Forbes campaign, of course, doesn't agree. Bill DalCol dismisses doubts about Forbes as a symptom of insular, inside-the-Beltway thinking. Or of something more sinister. The national media, DalCol says, are members of the same "club" -- a club from which Steve Forbes, as an outsider, is excluded. "A lot of these [reporters] socialize with the establishment players," DalCol explains. "The establishment players are all with Bush." Moreover, he says, Forbes is a magazine publisher. If you're a journalist, "who is the enemy? The publisher, the company. He happens to come out of the publishing industry. That's something we have to overcome."
It's easy to mock conspiracy theories like this. But they have been of great use to the Forbes campaign. For one thing, they allow Forbes's staff to ignore the biting coverage their boss often receives. And they allow Forbes himself to continue his bid for the presidency unhampered by doubts that perhaps the critics are right. All of which may explain why Forbes, at 4 percent in national polls, sometimes behaves like the front-runner.
For instance, when he issues slightly pompous statements on matters of concern to the International Community (the earthquake in Turkey, the civil rights of Catholics in Northern Ireland). Or when he faxes out press releases about subjects so trivial that it's hard to believe a human being actually sat down and typed them out ("FBI Veteran Named Forbes Security Director"). Or when, as he does every day, he acts as if at some point soon he will be president of the United States.
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.