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Different Strokes for Dole, Forbes on Campaign Trail

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steve Forbes, his lopsided grin plastered to his face, looks out over the Derry Chamber of Commerce breakfast crowd to the battery of 11 television cameras behind them and says: “I hope you don’t mind my bringing along all of my new friends today.”

The respectful audience at the Promises to Keep restaurant, just down the road from poet Robert Frost’s farm-museum, listens intently as the multimillionaire publisher recites his now-familiar campaign liturgy.

“The power to tax is the power to destroy . . . the only way to deal with the present tax code is to scrap it, kill it, bury it . . . 17% flat tax . . . greatest nation on earth . . . no difference between values and economics . . . change the culture of Washington . . . when I’m president . . . thank you all very much.”

Halfway across the country, as a frigid wind rakes the icy plains of the Midwest, Forbes’ chief rival for the Republican nomination, Sen. Bob Dole, is speaking to the Iowa Pork Congress in Des Moines.

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Dole, the suddenly vulnerable front-runner, is beset by questions by a press corps who smell a wounded candidate. He is pestered about polls showing Forbes narrowing the gap, about his baleful response to President Clinton’s State of the Union address, about a harsh new ad attacking Forbes, about his age, about his third-place finish in Monday’s Alaska straw poll behind Patrick J. Buchanan and Forbes.

Dole manages to keep his annoyance in check, but it is clear from his recurrent scowl that this is not at all the scenario he pictured just two weeks before the Iowa caucuses and three weeks before the New Hampshire primary.

A snapshot of one day in the Republican contest for the presidency shows two campaigns moving in opposite directions.

Fallen Rivals

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The other Republican candidates look on helplessly as Forbes and Dole dominate the political stage. Each of the others--particularly Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, commentator Buchanan and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander--hoped to be in position by now to benefit from the front-runner’s stumble.

But it is Forbes, leader of the unlikeliest of juggernauts and purveyor of the simplest of ideas, who is reaping the fruits of the public’s search for a new face.

“So far, I like what he says,” said retired Derry firefighter Don Chase. “We need someone fresh, and I think Forbes is the man. It was a big mistake for the Republicans to run Dole. He’s been around Washington too long. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Dole responds by attacking Forbes’ “flat tax” proposal as a simplistic panacea and excuses his own slumping poll numbers as the product of Forbes’ bottomless advertising budget.

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On the Attack

The Dole campaign unveiled an anti-Forbes ad in Iowa on Tuesday, attacking Forbes’ long-standing opposition to a balanced-budget amendment. “Untested leadership,” the ad says of Forbes. “Risky ideas.”

“I think they [Iowans] want me to defend myself,” Dole said at a press conference at the pork parley. “From what I hear, with all these things that Forbes puts out there every day, what we’re trying to do is defend ourselves.”

The Senate majority leader dismissed polls showing him in a tight race with Forbes as nothing more than the expected fluctuations in a volatile race.

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“We’re holding steady, [in] fact gaining a little, but my view is polls are somewhat deceptive from time to time,” Dole said. “As long as we feel comfortable with our organization and with our strategy, then I’m not going to worry about polls.”

He was also forced to deal with questions about his poor showing in the lightly attended Alaska caucuses this week.

Buchanan and Forbes finished a close 1-2, each receiving nearly twice as many votes as Dole.

In the Alaska polling, Buchanan received 33% of the total, or 2,988 votes. Forbes tallied 2,818 votes, or 31%. And Dole got just 1,565 votes, or 17%.

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Buchanan bragged afterward that the result was proof that while Forbes’ money is “enormous . . . he’s not invincible.” And Gramm glossed over his fifth-place finish and hammered away at Forbes. While the publisher calls himself a Reagan Republican, Gramm proclaimed Forbes a “Rockefeller Republican.”

Dole minimized the result of the nonbinding vote, saying Tuesday: “It’s not particularly significant.”

“Forbes spent a lot of money up in Alaska on TV, and I didn’t get to Alaska because of the budget talks.” Dole insisted he’s not frustrated with his slippage--"not yet.”

But he continued to pound away at Forbes for his lavish self-financed campaign. “This election is not for sale,” Dole said Monday in Marshalltown, Iowa. “All you people who go to work in a helicopter, vote for Forbes. All of you, when you get out in your yacht, give him serious consideration.”

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Bill Lacy, Dole’s deputy campaign manager, denied that the campaign was in a panic. He said that he expected the race to tighten as the Iowa and New Hampshire votes near, and added that Dole is not planning any major changes.

“Strategically, I don’t think we are doing anything differently than we expected to be doing at this point in the campaign,” Lacy said. “We are in a serious firefight with Forbes, which we weren’t in six weeks ago. But we expected to be in a fight with somebody--maybe not Forbes, but somebody.”

For his part, Forbes wears his dogged optimism like a uniform.

He seldom mentions Dole by name, referring to him obliquely as “some people in Washington” and “one of my opponents.”

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Simple Message

Mostly he sticks to his script, speaking of unleashing the latent power of the economy and patiently answering the criticism of his flat tax plan leveled by his GOP rivals.

“I see a few people from Washington here today,” Forbes told the Chamber of Commerce breakfasters, explaining the tax plan, “so I’ll go through this v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y.” The audience chuckles at Forbes’ appealingly nerdy stab at humor.

Whether it’s his simple message, his goofy grin or his sheer unfamiliarity, Forbes has something that is working in New Hampshire.

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“I really like him very much, much better than Dole,” said Magda Simons, a registered nurse from Derry. “I think he’s very honest. And I think he can win.”

Times staff writers Stephen Braun and Henry Chu in Iowa, Maria L. La Ganga in New Hampshire, and Sam Fulwood III and Robert Shogan in Washington contributed to this story.


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