Steve Forbes, The New King Of The Right Wing

For Republicans, it has been all George W. Bush so far. But Steve Forbes is convinced that his Presidential underdog bid will soon become the focal point of a conservative-led Stop George drive. The choice boils down to "leadership, not mush," the millionaire publisher told BUSINESS WEEK. "I'll win by having a muscular message and hammering it in."

Before you dismiss such talk as the hot air keeping the Forbes balloon aloft, consider this: Republican hard-liners are dropping by the wayside. Former Vice-President Dan Quayle has left the race. Populist agitator Pat Buchanan appears about to leave the party for the Reform Movement. New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith has opted to run as an independent. Meanwhile, religious activists Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer are going nowhere fast.

That gives Forbes a shot at becoming the conservative alternative--and he has the checkbook to make it happen. He promises to take on Bush in key states with a $20 million ad blitz. The spots will trumpet Forbes's bold positions while accusing Bush of boosting spending by 36% and backing tax hikes as governor of Texas. And he'll portray Bush's school reforms as more Big Government. "It's becoming clear that he's the only one with enough money to seriously challenge Bush," says Republican National Committee member Donald Devine.

SCRIPTURE. Bush has budgeted $20 million for his own issues ads, and his aides say that their man's $56 million war chest will overcome Forbes's financial firepower. Replies Forbes campaign manager Bill Dal Col: "We will help the front-runner spend every penny he raises."

To charm economic conservatives, Forbes backs a 17% flat tax, private Social Security accounts, tax-advantaged savings accounts for medical care, abolishing the International Monetary Fund, and axing the IRS. And while Bush is muting his social-conservative message to attract moderates, Forbes has morphed into a Scripture-quoting religious activist. He vows to appoint anti-abortion judges, promote religious home schooling, pick a pro-life running mate, and post the Ten Commandments in classrooms.

Some true believers dismiss the New Jersey patrician as an election-year convert. But Forbes is making inroads. Take Iowa conservative leader Nancy Streck. She says she switched from Buchanan to Forbes because only he could stop Bush. The same goes for Iowa State Senator Merlin E. Bartz, who backed Lamar Alexander in '96 and has now switched to Forbes. "The more Forbes talks about issues, the more people have come to see his sincerity," says Bartz.

But Forbes has a ways to go. In a Sept. 10-14 CNN/USA Today poll, he mustered 5%, vs. 62% for Bush. "I haven't sensed any rush to Forbes," says GOP strategist Rich Galen.

Nor are the Bushies unnerved. "We thought that, sooner or later, Forbes would emerge as the hard-right alternative," says a top Bush operative. While Bush advisers expect the race to tighten, they say Forbes has strong organizations in only a handful of states. "To be credible, you've got to demonstrate that you are a nationwide candidate," one scoffs.

So how does Forbes win the nomination? First, the mainstream GOP vote must split between Bush, Arizona Senator John McCain, and Elizabeth H. Dole, giving Forbes a breakthrough in Iowa or New Hampshire. Only then can he menace Bush in Delaware, Arizona, and South Carolina. If all that falls into place, Forbes will try to bury Bush with an ad blitz before the New York and California primaries on Mar. 7.

Thus far, Forbes has shown that he has the discipline, ideas, and money to become a player. But in this image-mad era, the cerebral approach may just not be enough.