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Jewish World Review Oct. 25, 1999/15 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Tony Snow

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Does Forbes have a chance? -- ELIZABETH DOLE'S DEPARTURE from the Republican presidential race leaves inquiring minds wanting to know: So what's the deal with Steve Forbes?

Conventional wisdom places Forbes among the triumvirate of major GOP survivors, along with Sen. John McCain and Gov. George Bush. But it doesn't take long to puncture that bubble.

A cursory look at the vital statistics reveals the Forbes campaign as a huge flop. Dole dropped out of the presidential race because she couldn't raise money. Yet she had hauled in more donations from more contributors than Forbes, and ranked higher in regional and national polls, despite making fewer trips to key states.

Forbes talked at the outset of forswearing the use of his own money. No more. His buckraking record is so pathetic that Forbes-watchers now define a fund-raiser as a trip to the nearest ATM. Forbes has devoted the last four years to GOP activism. He has bupkus for his trouble. Gary Bauer has hauled in more dough.

He was the first man to announce his candidacy over the Internet, but Orrin Hatch has lapped him in the cybersolicitation race. To date, Forbes has raised a grand total of $30,000 online. Put another way, his Internet operation is losing money, big time.

This tells one something. It makes it obvious that Steve Forbes has no more chance of becoming the next president than Bill Clinton does of becoming the next pope.

His champions will contest this view hotly, pointing out that Forbes has a greater claim to the title of Mr. Idea than any candidate in either party.

They are right. Forbes' theme of "freedom" makes great sense, and most of his policies bear the stamp of inevitability. Sooner or later, we will privatize retirement savings. Ditto for health care. History inclines one toward the belief that sound money and free trade will rocket the nation toward another century of global economic and intellectual dominance.

Forbes also shows a keen and impressive grasp of foreign policy. He has boasted meeting more foreign leaders than anyone else running, and that may be true despite Al Gore's participation in the festivities. He had a front-row seat to the Cold War and served as chairman of Ronald Reagan's Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in addition to expert helmsmanship of his family's eponymous magazine and media empire.

With that background, one would expect him to appreciate the difference between a powerful idea and an intoxicating delusion. The delusion is that Forbes has what it takes to sell his ideas and use them to fuel history's engine. The evidence seems to indicate that he's not a man who grows on voters. When his campaign purchased ads designed to give New Hampshire residents a glimpse of the Inner Steve, their man slipped in the polls.

So just as Elizabeth Dole had to take a hard look at her campaign and wonder what might happen next, so must Forbes. And that is the most interesting feature of the next phase in Campaign 2000.

He can behave like the political version of the Taxi Driver, whirling back each day to glare at the mirror and bark, "You talkin' to me?" This would cause his opponents to tremble in horror but wouldn't do much to make him appear more cuddly and avuncular.

He can run a professorial campaign and continue peddling policies the GOP ought to adopt -- in which case, he would remain Nowhere Man in the polls but have the satisfaction of knowing that he will, over time, have reshaped party dogma.

Whatever the case, he must decide whether to serve as a constructive or destructive nuisance. This choice has big consequences because Bush and McCain suffer weaknesses that deserve probing.

Bush at times behaves more like a frat boy than a potential commander in chief. One hears supporters muttering about arrogance or even immaturity.

Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari dumped him for McCain for just that reason. Bush needs someone to box him about the ears in matters of demeanor and policy -- not merely to draw him out, but also to force him to make the transition from giddy front-runner to Man Who Would Be President.

McCain has the handicap of being the man most loved by those who hate Republicans -- i.e., the press and Democrats. He could benefit from a rousing debate over such matters as campaign finance reform, abortion and even defense priorities, so he might have an equal chance of wooing members of his own party.

These are the areas in which Forbes can make a difference, using his own cash to make his own points. The one benefit of having a competitor rich enough to bankroll his folly is that he can use his lucre not merely to aggrandize himself, but also -- perhaps unwillingly and unwittingly -- to push others to new levels of excellence.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate