Fishing For The Small Fry Vote

What GOP Presidential hopefuls are offering you

When it comes to the GOP Presidential field, Jerry Harris is a torn man. Harris, who owns a Phoenix insurance agency, thinks that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) can get things done because "he knows the system." But then there's millionaire magazine publisher Steve Forbes, whose outside-the-beltway status and calls for a flat tax resonate strongly with Harris. He finds fiery orator Patrick J. Buchanan's concern about the loss of U.S. jobs to foreign competitors equally compelling. Then again, Former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander also intrigues Harris because "he was actually in a business."

If Harris sounds confused, he's not alone. As primary season heats up, the GOP candidates are all vying for the support of entrepreneurs. Small businessemploys roughly 50 million people in the U.S.--just one reason for its clout with pols. But the campaign messages overlap, and no one candidate has yet locked up the small-business vote.

DOLE'S EDGE. It's certainly not for lack of trying. On the stump, Dole regularly trumpets his Congressional track record of pushing regulatory reform and tax cuts--important issues to small business. Alexander cites his experience as co-founder of a child-care company. Forbes boasts of being a businessman "who knows what it means to meet a payroll." And Buchanan has penned a 10-point Small-Business Bill of Rights, available on the Internet. "Every candidate is making an effort to reach out," says John Paul Galles, president of National Small Business United.

Dole appears to have the edge--for now. A recent National Small Business United/CNBC poll showed Dole leading his GOP rivals with 27% of the small-business vote, followed by Forbes with 18%. Dole owes his lead largely to his legislative record: The National Federation of Independent Businesses figures Dole has voted with small business 80% of the time on issues such as the deductibility of health-care costs for the self-employed. "He knows the game and he knows how to play it," says Arthur C. Larrivee, a New Bedford (Mass.) real estate appraiser.

Trouble is, Dole's 34 years in Washington also work against him with some small-business owners. That's where Forbes's outsider status strikes a chord with many entrepreneurs, who have embraced the publisher's flat-tax proposal as a way of simplifying and possibly lowering their tax bill. "In 1992, we paid more to accountants than we paid in taxes," says Frank W. Goodnight, who owns a commercial printing company in Salisbury, N.C. "That's dumb."

Small-business owners also worry about education and workforce quality. Many like Alexander's calls to abolish the Education Dept. and give parents greater control over their children's education. And the Tennesseean says his plan to cut capital-gains taxes would create "a Niagara Falls of new jobs."

Pat Buchanan's 10-point plan outlines reforms such as a moratorium on new regulations and protections against frivolous lawsuits. It also calls for eliminating capital-gains taxes on risk-capital investments in startups, and for ending inheritance tax on family businesses. While these positions have won the support of many small business owners, others worry about Buchanan's trade stance. Saul Herscovici, whose Waterloo (Iowa) company makes gearboxes, figures a third of his sales go overseas. He warns that Buchanan's protectionism could backfire. "Isolationism doesn't work," the Romanian immigrant says. "Our economy would collapse."

Like many other small-business owners, Herscovici wants government off his back. But with all the GOP Presidential wannabes promising to do just that, entrepreneurs now have a tougher choice: deciding which messenger has the best shot at pulling it off.

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