Forbes Ad Swipes at Bush on Eve of Debate


On the eve of the first debate between all the Republican presidential contenders, longshot Steve Forbes revived his trademark slashing campaign style by accusing front-runner George W. Bush in a new television ad of betraying the American people over Social Security.

“Current law has raised the age of eligibility for millions of Americans from 65 to 67,” Forbes says in the ad, referring to recent changes in Social Security. “Now, George W. Bush says he’ll raise it even higher. I say it’s a betrayal, because that money’s been promised to you at age 65.

“As president, I will take Social Security out of the hands of politicians who break promises and put you in control of your retirement money.”


The commercial marks the first time a candidate has launched a television attack against an opponent in the presidential race. And, as expected, the source was Forbes, who was harshly criticized by Republican officials in 1996 for a series of television attacks on former Sen. Bob Dole, the eventual GOP nominee.

Brown University professor Darrell West, author of “Air Wars,” a history of political television ads, said Forbes’ 1996 ads against Dole did little for him and probably hurt Dole in his general election campaign against Clinton. As a result, West said Forbes’ decision--though understandable because of his third-place standing--is also “high risk” for both Forbes and the Republican Party.

“It’s very damaging for the party to have thermonuclear blasts against one of your own,” he said.

For now, West said Arizona Sen. John McCain could end up being the beneficiary by appearing to be the good guy above the fray.

The commercial is scheduled to begin running on television stations in New Hampshire today, where the GOP candidates will gather for the first time tonight in a debate that includes Bush, the Texas governor who has skipped three previous candidate encounters.

Forbes spokesman Keith Appell acknowledged the deliberate timing and he promised more hard-hitting ads if necessary in coming days. He also defended the latest commercial, saying “all we are doing is engaging Bush on the issues.”


But Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said the ad is “a misleading attack. Gov. Bush is committed to making sure seniors and near retirees do not lose any benefits.”

Forbes attributes his claim about Bush’s stance on Social Security to the governor’s interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Nov. 21. Bush said during the interview that he would consider an increase in the Social Security eligibility age as part of a “trade-off” in which workers would also get to privately invest some of the retirement money.

Forbes also favors such private investment accounts, but he insists people will be able to retire “at whatever age they want,” in the words of Appell.

Both Bush and Forbes appeared Wednesday at a pancake breakfast in Des Moines, where they separately exchanged some pointed barbs.

Forbes said a tax plan Bush unveiled Wednesday is “something only the timid could love--simply more political expediency.” Bush, who has stressed that he wants to try to maintain a positive campaign, responded by saying of Forbes: “He likes to campaign by tearing people down.”

Forbes’ new ad is unusual because it uses inexpensive still photos and simplistic graphics that seem intended to create a sense of urgent breaking news, said Brown University’s West.


Forbes also narrates the ad by telephone, explaining in the commercial that the low-tech audio was necessary in order “to respond to important issues immediately.”

The explanation appeared to be more for effect than necessity, however, since today’s high-tech communications equipment can transmit television-quality audio anywhere in the country as quickly as a telephone call.

“These days, cheap looks authentic in the eyes of voters; so it doesn’t look like it’s been put together by an ad consultant, even though it was,” West said.