Voters rally to rich kid who aims to buy the White House

Spending his own $25m, the Forbes boy is challenging for the presidency , John Carlin reports
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MALCOLM Stevenson Forbes Jr was born into great wealth, but his father was determined the boy would not become a brat. Malcolm Stevenson Forbes Sr, a legendary bon viveur who cherished an attachment to his Scottish roots, sought to imbue his son from an early age with the values of tradition, discipline and hard work.

He made the lad pull weeds and mow lawns in the family's vast New Jersey estate; serve drinks at cocktail parties aboard the 150ft family yacht; play the bagpipes and wear a kilt to church, where the Forbes clan enjoyed the comfort of knowing that, notwithstanding a tendency to arrive late, no other member of the congregation would ever presume to usurp the front row pews.

Forbes Jr, who calls himself Steve, has exceded paternal expectations. He has nurtured a family publishing empire established in 1917 by his grandfather, a Scots immigrant called Bertie Charles Forbes. Today, at the age of 48, Steve is the world's richest journalist. A columnist for his own Forbes magazine, with a talent for financial prognostication, he has a personal fortune in excess of $200m (pounds 135m).

Now he is trying to answer one of the great questions: "What do you give the man who has it all?" He means to buy himself the presidency of the United States.

Any American can try to make it to the White House, so long as he has the necessary millions, but while Bill Clinton, Bob Dole and the rest will be spending much of the coming year bowing and scraping to influence- seeking donors, Mr Forbes plans to finance his campaign out of his own pocket. Running as a Republican, he has said he reckons on spending $25m, an amount that - win or lose - he would be able to recover through the sale of the family chateau in Normandy or the Fiji island of Lacaula (pop 200), bequeathed to him in 1990 upon his father's death.

Widely dismissed as a rich kid with an expensive hobby when he announced his candidacy four months ago (Newsweek described him as "a gazillionaire playpol"), Mr Forbes has confounded the punters by pulling ahead of the pack pursuing Bob Dole, the clear front-runner in the Republican race. The December polls have shown that in New Hampshire, where the often influential first Republican primary will be held on 20 February, he is the only candidate apart from Senator Dole to enjoy double- digit support. The latest figures give Mr Dole 35 per cent and Mr Forbes 16 per cent, with such veteran political campaigners as Phil Gramm, Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander all scrambling around in the 6 per cent shallows.

In the light of unassailable evidence that Mr Forbes has inherited none of his father's flamboyance, this is a remarkable achievement. Forbes pater, who was given to wearing turbans as well as kilts, flew Elizabeth Taylor and 1,000 others guests to attend a banquet at a palace in Tangiers on the occasion of his 70th - and final - birthday. He owned 68 motorcycles and was an ardent hot-air balloonist.

The son is rebelliously spartan in his tastes; in his manner, diffident, owlish and professorial - Geoffrey Howe without the charisma. If he is beating all but one of his rivals in the Republican race it is in large measure because they themselves suffer from what disgrunted party loyalists, fearful of a Clinton victory, describe as a personality deficit.

All things being equal on the charm front, Mr Forbes has learnt from Ronald Reagan the lesson that an optimistic message plays better among the good-natured American electorate than what he calls "sourpuss" prophecies of doom.

While the other Republicans rail about the fell destiny that awaits America if the Federal budget is not balanced, Mr Forbes has dedicated his resources to flooding the television airwaves of New Hampshire and Iowa (whose somewhat less influential caucuses occur on 12 February) with a direct message impeccable in its free-market orthodoxy. A President Forbes would replace the progressive income tax system with a 17 per cent flat tax, applicable to all; America would once again be prosperous and great.

Every day for the past two months, over breakfast, lunch and dinner, viewers in the two initial target states have been treated to 30-second sound bites of a goofily grinning Mr Forbes declaring that, under his plan, the agonising chore of filling in the annual tax returns would become "postcard easy".

The appeal of the message is enhanced by the suggestion that, deprived of tax breaks to play around with, Washington politicians will stop power- peddling and grow honest. "I'm Steve Forbes," he says. "If you take away the tax code, you take away the power of the Washington politicians." And: "Scrap the tax code. Put in a low flat tax. It's simple, it's honest - and that's a big change for Washington."

The not so hidden sub-text, like Ross Perot's before him, is: "Look, I'm so rich, I'm incorruptible: vote for me and I won't be owing any favours to anyone."

The betting among Washington's political professionals is that Mr Forbes's patrician wealth is precisely what will undermine his efforts to secure the affections of the American middle-class. Barring a disaster in the Dole campaign, they say, the Forbes bubble must burst.

But no matter. Malcolm Forbes Jr has spent Christmas 1995 plugging free enterprise, spending lots of money and having fun. And Father would surely have approved of that.