Posted on February 05, 1996 in Washington Watch

Senator Bob Dole’s campaign for the Presidency is in trouble. After months as the uncontested leader of the race for the Republican nomination, suddenly the Senator has taken a hard fall in key states, and is being forced to work in an effort to recover.

The two reasons most often cited for Dole’s difficulties are his weak response to President Clinton’s January 20 State of the Union address, and the enormous amount of money spent on anti-Dole television ads by one of his challengers, multi-millionaire Steve Forbes.

Dole’s response to Clinton was weak, not in content, but in style. Even his Republican supporters complained that the Senator looked too old, too stiff, and that his tone was too harsh.

A press frenzy followed. It was as if the national media had been waiting for a Dole slip. After Dole’s speech, they pounced, and for four days negative stories dominated both the print media and the airwaves.

Dole’s slip coincided with Steve Forbes’ effort to break into the race. For months after announcing, Forbes quietly built his staff and organization and bought television advertising time in some of the key primary states. The early ads simply served to introduce voters to Forbes and his message of “hope, growth and opportunity.” Wielding only one campaign weapon, his call to replace the national tax system with a “flat tax” of 17%, Forbes began to slowly inch his way upward in the polls

But Forbes has another weapon: a personal fortune of over $400 million. All the other Presidential hopefuls are raising money according to federal campaign finance laws that require them to adhere to strict reporting requirements, impose a limit of $1,000 from each contributor, and establish strict spending limits in each state (for example, a total spending limit of $600,000 in New Hampshire). Forbes, like Perot in 1992, has taken advantage of a loophole in the election law which sets no limit on the amount of money individuals may use to finance their own campaign. So while some of the other campaigns have nearly reached their spending limits, Forbes has a virtual open field to buy and spend. And he has.

In the past month, Forbes began his sprint to the finish line. So far, estimates are that Forbes has spent $10 million on television advertising alone. One television station in New Hampshire reports that Forbes has bought virtually all their available advertising time. Reports from the state indicate that every fifteen minutes a station runs at least one, if not two, Forbes ads.

Dole once held a commanding 20 point lead in the New Hampshire polls. One New Hampshire observer characterized the Forbes surge, saying, “You are witnessing the total domination of the electronic media in a small place by one man, and he has succeeded by that one means in bringing the front-runner down to where he can be readily challenged.”

The ads, which have had so much effect, are sharply critical of Forbes’ opponents and promote his campaign themes of a “flat tax” and opposition to what he calls “Washington politics” as usual.

Most recent polls show Forbes beating Dole in New Hampshire by 6-8%. Polls also show Dole in trouble in Iowa and in Arizona. And in Alaska and Louisiana, two states where conservative Republicans dominate the party’s politics, Buchanan has emerged as the front-runner.

While Dole’s State of the Union response and Forbes’ money are obvious factors to note as reasons for this upheaval in the Republican contest for the nomination, others factors also must be examined.

Dole, who has been unsuccessful in two previous races for the Presidency, tried hard to do everything right this time. He has secured endorsements from virtually the entire Republican establishment: more than two-thirds of the Republican governors, state party chairs and leading elected officials have all endorsed his candidacy. He has carefully crafted his image to fit the image demanded of the increasingly powerful right wing of his party. Since his leading opponent was another Senator, he retained control over the senate during the primary process.

For the most part, this strategy has worked as expected. Most recent national polls of Republican voters still show Dole maintaining a huge lead over the other Republican challengers. The most recent national poll showed Dole beating Forbes 45%-15%

But the primary primaries are not a national contest. They are fought state-by-state, and in the beginning it is one state at a time. This is where Forbes has succeeded. As in a horse race the initial front-runner often tires, Dole’s leads in key states have evaporated as Forbes has portrayed him out of touch and Dole’s own performance on January 20 reinforced an image of Dole as an old man and somewhat boring. And, just as the Republican primary field enters the home stretch, Forbes explosion has dominated the media with attacks and new ideas. The fact that Forbes has never won an election, never served in Washington and is a “political outsider” – all these are themes that he has used to his advantage against his opponents.

Not unlike Perot in 1992, Forbes has used frustration with Washington politics as a theme, and it is resonating with many discouraged voters, including those who consider themselves independents. It is in large measure independent voters who are flocking to Forbes’ camp in New Hampshire and Iowa. They are looking for an alternative to what they consider the stale ideology of the right wing to whom Dole and the other Republican challengers have directed their campaigns.

Dole’s slip in his State of the Union response would not have been so problematic were it not for the way the media collectively pounced on the Senator in the days that followed. In fact, very few Americans actually saw Dole’s speech. They only know about it through unfavorable news reports.

All of this points to an example of the role that the media and money (used for advertising) plays in shaping the perceptions that become reality in U.S. politics.

Forbes, again like Perot before him in 1992, is showing that money can buy a seat at the table of political power. In the weeks and months to come, he will seek to answer another question: can money buy a major party nomination for the presidency?

Until now, what voters know of Forbes is his “flat tax” and his ownership of the Forbes publishing empire, the flagship of which is Forbes magazine (a respected and successful business publication founded by his father). Forbes vast wealth was inherited.

With only a few weeks remaining before the key Iowa and New Hampshire contests, Forbes opponents have begun to counter-attack. While the targets of the attacks are Forbes’ wealth, which is surprising for Republicans, Dole and Graham have also been critical of Forbes’ “overly simplistic” flat tax, his inexperience which led one Dole ad to criticize Forbes for his “risky and untested” ideas. And in an effort to criticize both the manner in which Forbes’ has risen and the remind the voters of how Forbes inherited his wealth, Dole has noted that “This office is not for sale. ...You’ve got to get it the old-fashioned way – you’ve got to earn it.”

With Forbes surging forward in key states, the media is also beginning to take note of the wealthy challenger. First came the big build-up (cover stories in major newsweeklies and flattering interviews on television), but now the research divisions of the major papers will work to unearth what they can about his background.

One Dole supporter commented on this process by saying, “First they (the media) love him (Forbes) and use him for his nuisance value. They’ll trash him when he gets too close.”

What is not certain is whether the candidates’ counter-attacks and anticipated media exposure will take effect soon enough to stop Forbes’ surge and save Dole’s campaign. Or, since Dole’s campaign was based on thin popular support anyway, can Dole recover? Will yet another Republican emerge from the pack to take the lead in the later states?

At this point, none of the answers are clear, or even clearly hinted. As one Republican party official told me, “We are certainly entering a dark tunnel. A week ago we thought we knew where we were going. Now everything has changed.”

That outlook may be too bleak, but what is clear is that the Republican race is going to be far more competitive and interesting than was originally expected.

Dole has begun to use all of his assets in an effort to come back in Iowa and New Hampshire. New Hampshire’s popular Republican Governor is now vigorously campaigning for Dole and attacking Forbes. In Iowa, where grass-roots mobilization remains the key to victory, Dole is counting on the organization he overhauled after his disappointing finish in the straw poll last fall to overcome the Forbes challenge.

Dole, once the undisputed leader, has found that his support was strong but very thin. Now that he has slipped, his campaign finds that it cannot coast to victory – it must fight hard if their candidate is to recover and win.

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