Steve Forbes: He's Tanned. He's Rested. He's Back Talking Flat Tax

The millionare is saddling up for the campaign trail again

Malcolm S. (Steve) Forbes Jr. poured some $35 million of his personal fortune into a quirky Presidential quest, only to see his one-theme message of a flat tax fall flat. But the doughty conservative and principal heir to the Forbes magazine fortune hasn't lost his taste for politics. A year after he launched his first bid for elected office by blanketing the Iowa and New Hampshire airwaves with ads, Forbes still keeps a candidate's speaking schedule--and an open checkbook.

Forbes says he's preparing to campaign on behalf of GOP gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia. It's clear that he's also honing his sales pitch for another White House run in 2000. Forbes is bankrolling the nation's first "message tank": Americans for Hope, Growth, & Opportunity, an echo of the mantra from his 1996 Republican primary campaign. The outfit will produce "highly targeted television ads" championing Forbes's ideological interests, promises AHGO President William Dal Col, the media mogul's former campaign director.

MORE RESPECT. Forbes is also mending bridges to the GOP hierarchy. In 1996, he angered party elders with slashing ads that attacked front-runner Bob Dole's lack of conservative passion. Since then, Forbes has quietly risen in the eyes of the party faithful for sticking to his message: flat tax, flat tax, flat tax. "I was surprised by his impact in 1996 and the respect he's gained," says Republican strategist William Kristol, who edits The Weekly Standard, a conservative journal. "Forbes could actually battle Jack Kemp for the leadership of the party."

Forbes won't say whether he's contemplating taking on his former supply-side soul mate, who is openly discussing running in 2000. But he is assuming a party leadership style, pressing House and Senate leaders to stick to his agenda. "The key is for Republicans to not lose their nerve on tax cuts and to make it clear that this is simply a downpayment for overhauling the tax code," says Forbes. What better symbol, he asks, of the nation's complex code than the Internal Revenue Service's fouled-up $4 billion computer system overhaul? "The government wouldn't need a $4 billion computer to administer a simpler tax code," says Forbes.

Beyond tax cuts and simplification, Forbes is also pushing the themes he develops in his biweekly column at Forbes, where he is editor-in-chief. Most prominent are Social Security privatization and reforming the Medicare system with tax-exempt medical savings accounts. Although pro-choice on abortion, Forbes will try to curry favor with the religious right by inveighing against so-called partial-birth abortions and against a government that "punishes marriage, children, work, and savings."

SPARE CHANGE. Forbes has paid a price for his fascination with politics. In addition to his $35 million in out-of-pocket expenses, his brothers sold his company plane, an aging Boeing 727, while he was campaigning. But with a net worth estimated at $400 million, Forbes can afford a new plane and a second self-financed run for the White House.

Still, politics may yet prove a poor investment. Forbes "is more like a preacher than a politician, but he's preaching to the choir," says Claibourne Darden, an independent pollster in Atlanta. "He's already got their vote--he needs to broaden his message." A recent Harris Poll underscores that problem: Forbes ranks fifth in a national preference poll for the GOP nomination in 2000, gaining only 4% support. That puts him behind Colin Powell, Kemp, Dan Quayle, and Texas Governor George Bush Jr.

The message tank will try to enlarge Forbes's appeal by emphasizing such bedrock conservative issues as deregulation and a strong military. "It's just like the American Revolution, where you needed a long incubation period of pamphlets and meetings," he says. And he plans to add to his political resume by campaigning for New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. Whitman was a schoolmate and neighbor and owes her 1993 upset victory to Forbes's suggestion that she adopt a 30% state tax cut. If those cuts send her back to Trenton this fall, Forbes aims to prove that the right messenger can ride the same horse all the way to Washington.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE