Cover Story

Blue Blood, Blue collar

Still hovering in single digits in the polls, millionaire publisher and second-time-around GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes is finding a way to connect with the kinds of people he would never have met in prep school

Issue: "Forbes," Nov. 20, 1999

in Des Moines - asdfasdfTo the manor born, to Iowa banished. That's what it must feel like to be Steve Forbes some days. Take Nov. 5, for instance. Instead of waking up in his $11-million-plus spread in New Jersey-or one of his family's homes in London, North Africa, or the French countryside-Mr. Forbes draws back the drapes of the Fairfield Inn for a view of Muscatine, Iowa. A Taco Bell and a KFC stand opposite the motel, and downstairs a "free continental breakfast buffet" awaits. But if he yearns for something fancier, there's not a top restaurant in sight. Come to think of it, according to the Zagat's guide, there's not a top-rated restaurant in the entire state. Not that he'd have time for a mimosa-style brunch if there were one to be found. Breakfast, on this day, consists of two huge boxes of doughnuts set on the kitchen counter in the home of a local supporter. Four dozen or so Muscatinians munch on maybe twice that many doughnuts while the candidate stands before the fireplace, giving his stump speech. Then it's off to the patio, where he signs copies of his campaign manifesto, A New Birth of Freedom, for anyone who cares to have one. After another 15 minutes of handshaking and several front-porch photos with the children of his hosts, he jumps aboard his campaign bus and heads to the next stop: a windowless, underground pool hall/banquet facility just up the road in Iowa City. For a man born to wealth and privilege, this kind of life can only be ... fun? Steve Forbes certainly looks like he's having fun. When he ran for president three years ago, his tight little grin looked more nervous than happy; indeed, "deer-in-the-headlights" was a phrase that cropped up again and again in media accounts. This time around, his trademark, bemused smile has actually reached his eyes, which tend to sparkle when he tells a joke or lands a verbal jab against the Clinton administration. Some unforced backslapping and the occasional upper-arm grip have replaced the robotic handshake. He moves easily through crowds, making small talk and nodding appreciatively when opinions are offered. He's animated, energized, even-in his own words-pumped. But in the opinion of many political pundits, Mr. Forbes, the blueblood publishing heir worth an estimated $440 million, isn't supposed to use words like pumped. He isn't supposed to stay in Fairfield Inns or shake hands with farmers wearing overalls. And he certainly isn't supposed to enjoy it. Those pundits, not surprisingly, have been largely dismissive of his quest. Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker, for instance, called Mr. Forbes a "geeky, hopelessly awkward plutocrat." Tucker Carlson, writing in the neoconservative Weekly Standard, was even harsher, describing Mr. Forbes as a man determined to "blow his family fortune ego-tripping through a midlife crisis." Outside the rarefied media atmosphere of Washington and New York, however, a different sort of opinion seems to be taking shape. Out here in Iowa, where the first votes will be cast, people are turning out by the thousands to encourage Mr. Forbes in his "midlife crisis." They're packing into pool halls, bingo parlors, and VFW posts to hear the one Republican they believe is talking about the issues. Nearly 4,000 people showed up at various stops on this five-day bus tour-the vast majority of them new converts to the Forbes cause. At the Hawkeye Downs racetrack in Cedar Rapids-stop number 11 on the bus tour-some 400 Iowans in mismatched chairs of yellow plastic or purple tweed upholstery listened to a 15-minute speech that ranged from the tight-money policies of the Fed to the rise of diphtheria in Russia. There was no pulse-pounding music, no laser light show, no screaming teenagers waving campaign signs on cue. Even the chili was bland. Yet the crowd loved it. They filled out prospect cards by the hundreds, promising to attend their caucus, to volunteer five hours to the campaign, to speak to five friends. They fought for books, then stood in line for a hastily scrawled autograph. And most of all, they discussed the issues the candidate had raised. "This is not a campaign of smoke and mirrors," says an admirer who had supported Pat Buchanan until he left the party. "Steve Forbes talks about issues. He doesn't talk down to us." What was the most important issue Mr. Forbes had raised in his speech? "I like his ideas on the flat tax," says one woman. "I liked what he said about how Clinton has hurt our farm exports," her friend offers. "And letting us have our own Social Security accounts that we can invest ourselves." "Or those medical accounts that you can spend the way you want to." And so it continues for another half-dozen topics, each woman agreeing with the previous issue then adding a new one of her own. Finally one stops and laughs: "He gives you so much to think about. I can't wait to read his book. He's got ideas that can really change things, and no one else is talking about these things the way he is." This is what the pundits are missing: The Steve Forbes of 1999 is gaining traction as a complex, multi-issue candidate. Unlike 1996, when a late start forced him to focus almost exclusively on the flat tax, this time around he has a whole host of issues in his arsenal. If every candidate has his schtick-McCain the war hero, Bush the electable, Bauer the family candidate, Keyes the ideological standard-bearer-Mr. Forbes's emerging schtick seems to be as the issue guy. It may not be flashy or media-friendly, but Mr. Forbes believes that his schtick will click with the voters. "Even if they haven't yet absorbed all that you've put on the table, I think they're intrigued and yearn for something substantive," he says, as his bus rolls past mile after mile of central Iowa farmland. "They're tired of the BS from Washington-all talk, and very little of any meaning gets done. I do believe, even though you don't have the anger that you might have had 8 or 10 years ago, there's a very real feeling of disaffection and remoteness from the political process and political culture.... They can't quite put their finger on why it happens, but they do feel that there's a disconnect." The Forbes team realizes that the first balloting is still three months away and that many voters haven't yet begun focusing on the issues. That allows them to write off the most recent polls showing their candidate still in the single digits, eating the dust of the frontrunner. They insist that once people start looking for substance, more and more will find themselves drawn to the Forbes idea mill. That mill is constantly working, churning out specific positions and detailed plans on everything from race relations to China policy to the environment. A New Birth of Freedom, which Mr. Forbes penned himself over the course of six months, could just as well be titled The Book of Lists. Chapter after chapter offers point-by-point plans and programs, including "five essential principles" for Russian economic prosperity; five steps government should take to reinforce traditional moral values; seven environmental principles "rooted in traditional American commonsense"; a 10-point plan for privatizing Social Security; and many more. Mr. Forbes is just as specific and wide-ranging in his speeches as he is in writing. In recent months he has offered "A Civil Rights Vision for the 21st Century" to the National Baptist Convention; "A Plan to Save Our Children" to the Georgia Republican Convention; "A New Vision for Social Security" to the Small Business Survival Summit; and "A Healthcare Declaration of Independence" to the National Managed Care Congress. Such detailed issue-talk flies in the face of the conventional political wisdom, which holds that candidates should be as vague as they can get away with, in order to offend as few voters as possible. But aides say that taking positions on specific issues is more than just a way for Mr. Forbes to differentiate himself from the Republican frontrunner. Rather, it's a function of the way his mind works. Mr. Forbes clips constantly from the periodicals he reads, a habit picked up at his family's magazine. Those clippings may be saved for future speeches, sent to his research staff for clarification, or turned instantly into positions. Campaign manager Bill DalCol remembers the time his boss read up on a congressional vote to kill the so-called arsenal ship, a proposed Navy ship that would have carried scores of sea-based missiles yet required only a handful of crew members. Mr. Forbes ordered a press release condemning the vote against the arsenal ship-before anyone on his staff had even heard of it. If Mr. Forbes presents himself as a man of deep thoughts, his opponents portray him as simply a man of deep pockets. There's no denying that he's very, very rich, but no one is sure just how much he's worth or how much of his net worth is liquid enough to be turned into campaign cash. (The $440 million figure is an estimate by Fortune magazine; Mr. Forbes does not appear on his own magazine's annual listing of the richest Americans.) Rival campaigns and hostile pundits snipe that Mr. Forbes is a spoiled rich man trying to buy the presidency. That charge may yet stick, particularly if John McCain and Pat Buchanan continue to hammer away at campaign-finance reform. But there are problems with the analysis. For one, Mr. Forbes can reasonably claim that by largely funding his own bid, he insulates himself from the corrupting power of political donations. And then there's the matter of image. Voters interviewed by WORLD offered some variation of the same theme: "He seems like one of us." Counter-intuitive though it may be, there's no denying that the blueblood is connecting with the blue collars in places like Sioux City, Davenport, and Cedar Rapids. He's just "geeky" enough to seem sympathetic, just awkward enough to seem real. Far from ego-tripping through the state, he's shuffling through-a bit shy, a bit tentative, a bit awestruck. "Voters like him because he reminds them of themselves," says one aide. "How many of us were the jock in high school? Or the homecoming queen? He just comes across as a normal guy." A normal guy running for president with hundreds of millions of his own dollars. OK, it's a stretch. But what many pundits have missed is the fact that unlike 1996, this isn't a media campaign; it's a grassroots effort. As other conservatives drop out of the race-or switch parties-Mr. Forbes picks up staffers and endorsements. Slowly, meticulously, he has built a grassroots organization made up largely of movement conservatives. In key early-primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, his organization is full of former Christian Coalition staffers and other well-known figures from the religious right. Some Christians still haven't forgiven him for his seemingly dismissive attitude toward Pat Robertson in 1996. (Mr. Forbes insists his comments were taken out of context.) But many others like what they're hearing from the candidate this year-and the fact that he's addressing their issues at all. In discussing America's founding principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, he never misses the chance to bring up abortion. "We must always begin with life," he tells his crowds as he makes an appeal for a pro-life amendment to the Constitution. He promises to appoint only pro-life judges, while vowing simultaneously to change hearts and minds on the abortion question. In that, his words ring truer to his pro-life supporters than four years ago: He has, after all, funded dozens of media campaigns in various states considering laws on partial-birth abortion and parental notification. Still, some pro-lifers are slow to accept him. "I think he's taking a very strong and commendable position now and I know that people can genuinely change," says conservative activist Mike Farris. "But I'm skeptical of anyone who changes their position in the midst of political campaigns. I always prefer candidates who have arrows in their back from past battles." Mr. Forbes is hopeful he can win over his remaining pro-life critics in the same way he's changed minds in the past. He chuckles at the memory of the first big debate of 1999, held just days earlier in New Hampshire: "When a question was asked on the flat tax, virtually every candidate there had a nice word to say about it. What a contrast to a debate we had in Iowa four years ago! Lamar [Alexander] said it was a nutty idea, the others trashed it. And now-now they're coming on board." In Iowa City, a teenage mother with orange-blond hair and a pierced eyebrow is coming on board. Her toddler, fascinated by big vehicles, has clambered up the steps of the campaign bus, and she hastily jumps on to retrieve him. She's hardly your stereotypical Forbes voter, but she's convinced: "I think he'd make a better country for him," she says, nodding toward her wayward son. Another stop, another vote for Steve Forbes. With 80 days to go before the caucuses, the Iowa exile will continue. There will be more bus tours in the months ahead, more cheap motels, more doughnuts and burgers and chili. The haute cuisine will have to wait for the White House. Or maybe not. Steve Forbes, as it turns out, actually likes fast food. Exile can be hard on the diet.

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