Big spender Forbes woos Midwest

STEVE FORBES has mounted a massive push to boost his Presidential candidacy for the Republican Party as a key test of strength approaches today.

The wealthy, conservative publisher has funded a huge programme of television and radio advertisements across the Midwestern state of Iowa, and is using the Internet to woo party activists.

The state's straw poll today is an important test of the candidates vying for the party's slot in next year's Presidential election, even though it comes six months before the Iowa caucus and over a year before the election itself.

The straw poll allows Iowans to back their candidate in what amounts to an informal preview of the caucus, and this year - where there are so many candidates - it has been inflated to the status of a major event. Every candidate is in Iowa; at the State Fair, there are nearly as many politicians kissing babies as there are pigs to be judged in the arenas.

It is Mr Forbes, who has spent between $1m and $2m on this hitherto somewhat obscure event, who has elevated it to the status of a key test of strength that will winnow down the field.

The strategy is simple. "The sooner you get it to a one-on-one race - Forbes versus Bush - the better it will be for us," said an advisor to Mr Forbes.

George W Bush, the Governor of Texas and son of the former President, is far and away the favourite to win when the votes are put into boxes in Ames this weekend. He is said to expect between 40 and 50 per cent of the vote. But Mr Forbes has high hopes of coming in a creditable second in the small Iowa college town. Of all the clutch of conservatives, he has the best-funded, best-organised campaign, and his people have been all over the state for months. Pat Buchanan, the party's nationalist gadfly, calls Forbes and Bush "the gold dust twins": both have virtually unlimited resources.

Elizabeth Dole will probably be third; apart from her other political assets, she scores very well with women. The religious leader Gary Bauer has a sound foundation amongst the state's more religious conservatives. Senator John McCain chose not to compete here, and will probably score well in other states. But for Mr Buchanan, Dan Quayle, Alan Keyes and Lamar Alexander, this is probably the end of the line. "More important than who finishes at the top is who finishes at the bottom," said Marlys Popma, who works for Mr Bauer. "If you're sixth, seventh or eighth, it's going to be difficult to raise money."

There is much scepticism about the event in the wider world, but that does not diminish the hype. The Manchester Union Leader, the key paper in New Hampshire, calls it, sniffily, "the stickup in corn country". It predicts that Mr Forbes will come second, but is more interested in the other conservatives, the former vice-president Mr Quayle and Mr Bauer. "Quayle will do poorly, Bauer will surprise," it says.

To vote, all that you need is proof of Iowa residency and $25. In previous years, all you needed was the money - this is primarily a fund-raising event - and the straw poll has never predicted a winner. About 15,000 people will vote.

The candidates are paying for the tickets; they are paying for the air- conditioned buses to take the voters to the Hilton Coliseum to vote; and they are paying for the entertainers and the food to persuade people to trek to Ames. Mr Bush will have country singers and a barbecue, but Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, a newcomer and a rank outsider, has probably the best line-up: crooner Vic Damone and chanteuse Gladys Knight will serenade his supporters.

Mr Forbes' television ads tout Caspar Weinberger, a former defense secretary, as well as a healthy sprinkling of black conservatives to emphasise his inclusive appeal. Crucially, he has the backing of legendary conservative Paul Weyrich.

"While there are many good conservatives running for president in 2000, in my view Steve Forbes is the only economic, social and pro-life conservative in the race with the ability to win the White House," Mr Weyrich says in a letter to conservative activists. But he also makes a pragmatic point which none of the others can gainsay.

"Forbes is the only candidate who has organisations in all of the key primary and caucus states through the end of March 2000,'' he said. "No other candidate besides George W Bush can compete with him.'' And he has money.

Mr Forbes, publisher of the financial magazine named after his grandfather has repeatedly e-mailed supporters to ask them to persuade friends and relatives in Iowa to back him, and he launched his campaign with a live Internet broadcast.

For his vast investment, the best he can hope for is second place, but at this stage, that will look like a victory.

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