The geek gets serious

Steve Forbes has always had the money to beat his Republican rivals. Now he believes that he has the ideas to beat Bill Clinton. Daniel Jeffreys met him on the road
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It is 9am, the rain is beginning to fall hard in Manchester, New Hampshire, and a goofy-looking guy in a suit is getting wet. As the locals in this northern industrial town run for cover he stands his ground, trying to shake hands with the retreating population. The only time he pauses is to wipe raindrops off his bottle-glass spectacles. "Hi, I'm Steve Forbes," he says.

A surprising number stop and take his slightly clammy palm, for this magazine magnate has become a national phenomenon. When he entered the US presidential race he was met with a mix of curiosity and derision. Now he is running at the front of the campaign for the Republican nomination - opinion polls in New Hampshire, where the first primary takes place this month, show him nine points ahead of Robert Dole, the Republican Senate leader. Forbes has become the man everybody wants to meet.

Forbes is in the same tradition as Ross Perot: a successful businessman with a wacky plan to revive America, and a bulging bank balance that avoids the grubby necessity to collect campaign contributions. That makes Forbes "independent", a quality much prized by jaded US voters tired of career politicians. The wacky plan is based on his proposal for a flat tax rate of 17 per cent for all Americans. "Everything begins with the flat tax," he tells his audiences. "That will unleash growth for everybody."

His proposal had been explained to me earlier on the journey from Morristown, New Jersey, to Manchester. Forbes used to travel on a gaudy green and gold 727, but now the self-financed candidate opts for commercial jets or anonymous charter planes. "We have to start with a brand new tax code," he says, bright enthusiasm still visible through what looks like six inches of spectacle glass. "Income should only be taxed once. We have chosen a flat rate of 17 per cent across the board and that would generate growth of historic proportions."

Forbes claims his populist proposal would mean everybody pays less tax: "We would do away with tax exemptions altogether. Each dollar a person gets from a tax deduction like mortgage relief means $2 straight out of their pocket. That's the way Washington plays the game; but with a flat tax we remove the principal source of political pollution and change the culture of Washington."

The criticism levelled at Forbes is that his plan would cause the US government deficit to balloon and, since the wealthy would benefit massively from tax cuts, he is simply writing a charter for the rich - whose numbers include himself.

Born in 1947 and christened Malcolm Stevenson Forbes Jnr, "Steve" is a child of privilege. He was raised in Bedminster, New Jersey, close to where Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had her country home. The eldest son of the eccentric Malcolm Forbes, Forbes Jnr was groomed from birth to take over the family's publishing empire, now worth at least $1bn.

While his fellow students campaigned against Vietnam, Forbes spent his Sixties at Princeton establishing a business magazine. He married his wife, Sabina, in 1972; they have five daughters aged between eight and 22. Their relationship began at Princeton over dinner. Forbes says he was smitten after she accepted his offer of a cigar. They were engaged five weeks later. Apart from standing for president, it seems to have been the only impetuous act of his life. "Forbes men wait until their later years to rebel," he says. "My grandfather grew his hair long and my father rode Harleys. You could say my campaign is equally quixotic, but I'm deadly serious."

That he is. The boy who was made to wear a kilt every Sunday by his father has grown into his own man. "If Forbes wins in New Hampshire or Iowa, Dole is fatally damaged," says Sal Russo, a senior Republican strategist. "Then the campaign to dump Dole begins in earnest."

As Forbes's ratings rise, so does the tide moving against him. Fortune magazine, the main competitor to Forbes, laid siege to the candidate's editorial policy last week and accused Forbes of interfering with articles that criticised companies which buy advertisement space in his magazine. A frenzied search by US journalists has found one very skinny skeleton in a largely public cupboard - an elderly employee whom Forbes fired in 1993. She sued for age discrimination and Forbes settled out of court.

"Nice to see you, nice to see you." Forbes is working the crowd before an 11.30am lunchtime address in Nashua, a slightly smaller town than Manchester but which looks exactly the same. During his speech, Forbes agitates his thumb against his forefinger with nervous intensity as his arms hang stiff at his side. He does not look comfortable - but then, friends say, he never has. He appears to many voters like a serious and successful elder brother who would always help out in a crisis. He is nerdy, but there is an edge beneath the surface that offers an explanation for his success with Forbes - for all his showmanship, his father never got near to the kind of profits and circulation Steve has now achieved.

"I'm not flamboyant," he explains, riding to a second lunch engagement in the campaign van. "I left that to my father, he had the Harley Davidsons. I realised at an early age I could be swamped by him or I could become my own person and enjoy him for what he was. I think people appreciate me for what I am. I want to run the country, not a chat show."

Malcolm Forbes Snr died in 1990. Allegations that the candidate's father was actively bisexual have just emerged as an issue in the campaign. "I'm running for president, not my parents or my grandparents," he snaps. "That won't be discussed." His father's alleged bisexuality became an issue because Forbes is more liberal on gays than his opponents. "I favour a policy of 'don't ask and don't tell' for the military," he smiles, something he can do with genuine warmth. "I'm liberal on quite a number of issues - compared to my opponents."

That includes abortion: he snubs the fundamentalist Republicans on this touchstone question that split the last Republican national convention in two. "I want abortions to disappear," he says. "But I don't think America is ready for that yet. On this issue you have to change the culture first, you have to persuade people little by little." Isn't that an evasion? He bristles. "I don't have evasions, I have policies. It's my belief that we can persuade America to give up abortion. I hope that's so but it cannot be forced."

Forbes is proud to say that his father did not throw money at his children, that every house he ever bought involved a mortgage. He becomes prickly when accused of being out of touch. "I know the price of a loaf of bread," he says. "For 25 years, I've been in the private sector, dealing with real customers and meeting payrolls. I have five daughters, including two teenagers. If that's not a reality check, I don't know what is."

When I ask whether he has a foreign policy, he answers briskly. "I'm not a one-issue politician. Yet in one sense there is only one issue. Economics and values are the same. Without a flat tax, we will not have sufficient wealth for an aggressive foreign policy or adequate health care. Americans hear we are the one remaining super-power but we seem impotent in the face of poverty and job insecurity at home. I've yet to meet a voter who wants to ask me first about Bosnia."

He is right, they do not. Most residents of New Hampshire are one-issue voters. The state's old industries died in the Sixties. Its defence companies were killed in the late Eighties and the recession of 1991- 92 almost destroyed its fledgling hi-tech industry. Almost everybody who asks Forbes a question wants to know how the flat tax will restore prosperity.

"Steve is not a politician, which I think stands for a lot," says Don Sipple, Dole's media adviser. "He has a very simple position on economics, which he expresses well. America sees this quirky guy looking everybody in the eye and telling them how he can transform their lives in easy steps. It's a very successful advertising message."

Forbes has also been blessed with unlimited cash to spend against a field of opponents who seem to many like the worst kind of compromised career politicians. Bill Clinton is not liked in New Hampshire because of the Whitewater affair; Forbes has yet to say much about him, but about Dole he has already said plenty. Strident commercials all over the state feature Forbes and Dole and end with the slogan, "Two men, different values: Bob Dole, Washington values; Steve Forbes, conservative values". Like the flat tax the ad is simple, direct and it is working.

"He has become the medium through which doubts about traditional candidates are expressed," says Tom Rath, who advises Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee rival. "In time, the flat tax will haunt him as the voters realise how much the plan will do for Steve Forbes."

"That is such a diversion," says Forbes, who last week refused to make public his own tax returns. "I do very well under the existing system.I will do better under the flat tax, but my campaign will cost far more than the benefits I'd get from the flat tax. The issue isn't about what Steve Forbes might gain or lose. The issue is: does America gain, does America lose?"

Forbes will not say how much he is prepared to spend, although aides suggest it will be enough to keep him in the campaign until November. Beyond that, he believes he can win. "There are gloomie-doomies out there who say we cannot live up to our destiny. The American people are not listening to them any more. America has to be the shining light on the hill once more. Our values do work; we have to be confident. I am not buying votes. I am investing my money in a campaign to get my message of hope, growth and opportunity across to voters. They will judge the message and the messenger."

There is a hard road ahead. The other candidates have begun to surround him with their own versions of the flat tax and it is not clear how his brand of understated charisma will work at the Republican national convention. A Forbes TV appearance is a wooden affair and the lights too often reflect off his glasses, giving the impression of a startled animal. "I know all about that," he says, as the street lamps of Someplace, New Hampshire, slip past in the dark. "I think Americans bought into a slick TV performer with Bill Clinton - I think they have learnt their lesson. They are ready to go beyond appearances."

If Forbes is genuinely driven, there may be an Oedipal force at work. His overbearing father had trouble with personal relationships, but he also wanted to be president and he had a genuine love of power. "It was my father's first professional ambition to be president. He even started the family's chain of weekly newspapers because he thought that would help." Is this revenge for all those days of having to wear a kilt? "It's a ridiculous idea," he sniffs, then laughs with teeth and glasses all aimed at me. "Although if I win, I think Pop might be a bit surprised."