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Forbes millions add zest to dull Republican race elections

Magazine heir's flat-tax message has made him Bob Dole's closest rival, writes Rupert Cornwell in Washington
For that strange breed which seeks the presidency of the United States, no flattery is more sincere than frontal attack by your opponents, no music sweeter than the sound of your policies being savaged by your rivals. At least you are making an impact.

Which is why, from the weekend Republican candidates' debate in Iowa, signalling the last lap before the state's caucuses on 12 February, the news was not a policy announcement or a scintillating soundbite. Rather it was the sight of the rest of the gang piling in on a slightly stiff, softly spoken man with a famous name and bulging bank account, who had never fought an election campaign in his life.

Four weeks before the first crucial hurdle of the 1996 campaign, an indisputably dreary contest stands exactly as it did 12 months earlier - except for one thing: the remarkable ascent of Steve Forbes, heir to the Forbes magazine empire, trustee of Princeton University, and unabashed political novice.

Four months ago, the announcement of his candidacy seemed a footnote to a contest already set in stone. Today, he is the closest challenger to Senator Bob Dole; a distant second to be sure, but ahead of more fancied runners like Phil Gramm, Lamar Alexander and Pat Buchanan, thanks to a saturation advertising campaign in every early-primary state, targeted primarily at Mr Dole.

Eschewing the usual system of seeking private and corporate contributions and matching funds from the government, Mr Forbes has spent $10m (pounds 6.5m) out of his own pocket, and is prepared to lash out $25m more. "Steve Forbes's idea of a fundraiser is taking his wife out to dinner and signing the bill," said Mr Dole the other day as he was forced to launch his own television campaign to counter the Forbes onslaught.

But such gibes do not hide the fact that for his money Mr Forbes has obtained second-place poll showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, and a tie with Mr Dole in Arizona, where the first western primary is held on 27 February. He has become a possibly decisive factor in the race, not because he has a chance of winning but because he has prevented anyone else, and most notably Mr Gramm and Mr Alexander, from closing in on the front-runner. His campaign boasts only a rudimentary organisation, drawing its strength from paid television spots, a general public indifference to the other candidates on offer, and one passionately- held idea - a flat tax.

Mr Forbes, like most Americans, hates paying taxes. Unlike most Americans, though, he has a plan to do something about it. In a Forbes world, today's convoluted system of different rates, exemptions and loopholes would be replaced by a single flat tax of 17 per cent: no tax on investment income or capital gains, no mortgage deductions, no other breaks. Just an annual tax declaration that would fit on a postcard.

The proposal would also amount to an across-the-board tax cut of anything from $40bn to $200bn a year. Small wonder the public warms to the notion, and that on Saturday his opponents spent much of their time decrying it. Lamar Alexander called it "nutty". For Pat Buchanan it was "yacht-club stuff" that would provide a windfall for very rich people like Mr Forbes.

The fact remains, however, that a flat tax has been embraced by wide swathes of the Republican party in Congress, and by at least two of his fellow debaters. "The power to tax is the power to destroy," is the Forbes mantra. "Scrap the tax code, kill it, drive a stake through its heart."

Thus it is that the rather mousy 48-year-old scion of Malcolm Forbes, the publisher, party-thrower and lifelong proof that money does buy happiness, has become for myriad voters in Iowa and elsewhere simply "the flat-tax guy", achieving a fame, however transient, that his flamboyant father would have killed for. But there is more to Mr Forbes the politician than the flat tax. In a field notably short of good cheer, he projects it by the cartload. Mr Dole comes across as a curmudgeon, Mr Buchanan as a brawler, and Mr Gramm simply lacks the milk of human kindness. Mr Forbes may not be quite as rich as Ross Perot but he is a far more winning character than the last businessman to seek the White House, with none of the Perot paranoia and false modesty. Mr Forbes's diffidence, indeed, is part of his charm.

He also embodies a distinct strand of Republicanism, the party's "Wall Street wing", often overlooked in an era seemingly dominated by family values and the religious right. Mr Forbes articulates its credo perfectly: just cut taxes, and you will unleash the entrepreneurial American spirit, send growth soaring and send interest rates tumbling. As for that minor irritation of the deficit, never high anyway on the Forbes list of priorities, it will simply take care of itself. Ultimately, he insists, everyone will benefit.

And who can resist a tax cut - not the measly $500-a-child credit sought by congressional Republicans, but a rip-roaring full-out flat tax? Cloud- cuckoo- land, complain his critics. But Mr Forbes is the campaign's happy supply-sider, filling the gap left by Jack Kemp, the former Bush cabinet member and "bleeding heart conservative" par excellence, who opted a year ago to sit out the 1996 race.

In his less ebullient style, Mr Forbes is cut from similar cloth. He is an internationalist, and a radical, for whom devolution means handing powers not to the states, but to the individual. He is a tolerant man, who skirts the explosive issue of abortion. Only on immigration has he espoused the harsh line of the party's right.

In private, even Mr Forbes knows he cannot win; the majority of Republicans are unlikely to trust their vote to a man they had never heard of until last September.

But that should not spoil the fun. "Steve's having the time of his life," said a friend. And all that criticism? Well, Mr Forbes said with a grin after the Iowa debate, "It just proves I'm getting traction."