Barring a surprisingly strong showing in the "Super Tuesday" primaries, the GOP presidential campaign of publisher Steve Forbes may never make it to California's March 26 primary, sources close to the campaign said.
While there are still those in the Forbes ranks who would push to keep fighting "for the duration," there is growing impetus for the candidate to bow out gracefully before he goes down in political history as a spoiler, the sources said. There is also concern about allowing Forbes' flat-tax concept to become fixed in voters minds as Dole once labeled it: "snake oil."
By all indications, the campaign is now more interested in maintaining the credibility of Forbes' economic proposals, including the flat tax, than in dogging front-runner Dole all the way to the San Diego convention in August.
In comments reported Saturday, former Vice President Dan Quayle said it is time for Forbes to give up his presidential bid. For him to stay in the race, Quayle said, would hurt "both message and messenger."
That is an echo of the warning Forbes has been hearing from Republican insiders for weeks now.
Asked about Quayle's remarks and whether staying in the race would erode his ability to make the flat tax part of the GOP platform, Forbes said: "I'm not just concerned about the Republican platform, I'm concerned about getting it across to Republican voters in the rank-and-file. They will ultimately determine the direction of the party--not party leaders."
But for several days now, Forbes has sounded as if he is at least pondering the conventional wisdom that continuing to butt heads with Dole could backfire.
Since Tuesday, Forbes has been saying that Dole seems to be backing off his attacks on the flat tax, which the Kansan used to undermine Forbes' surprise blush of support in the early contests.
As he campaigned in Florida on Saturday, Forbes said Dole is wrong about the flat tax: "He said he wanted two rates for the flat tax. That's not the flat tax at all." But, he added, "now [Dole] is making noises that perhaps he will reconsider. If he reconsiders, we will consider it progress forward."
To many observers, that sounded more like a negotiating position than a campaign battle cry.
Meanwhile, the other leading Republican challenger, Patrick J. Buchanan, was also feeling pressure to give up but was rebuffing it.
Campaigning in Texas, he told reporters that some Republican heavyweights have been trying to reach him by phone but that he has ignored the calls.
At the same time, there were hints of possible ambivalence around his "pitchfork express" tour through Texas.
When talking about the bus campaign recently, he evoked his favored image of the peasant rebellion against the political gentry.
However on Saturday, he showed some discomfort after agreeing to pose with a pitchfork for a photograph. "We don't want to harden the image too much," Buchanan said later, expressing concern about seeming "too grim and menacing."
Buchanan got some good news from Missouri later in the day, showing early strength as Republicans gathered throughout the state to begin a process that eventually will lead to selection of 36 delegates to the GOP national convention.
With 893 of the 1,161 delegates tallied Saturday evening, state GOP officials reported that 352 delegates backed Buchanan, 240 supported Dole and 207 were uncommitted. Former State Department official Alan Keyes had 85 and Forbes had nine.
Party officials said final figures will not be known until later this week.
The delegates selected Saturday qualify for nine congressional district conventions April 13, when 27 delegates will be picked for the national convention.
The final step is the GOP state convention May 17-18 in Springfield, at which nine more delegates will be elected.
Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren and Times wire services contributed to this story.