The Magazine

Money Can't Buy You Love

Over the last four years, Steve Forbes has spent $ 60 million running for president. He's at 4 percent in the polls. What gives?

Nov 8, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 08 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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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.