Flat Chance

In '96, Steve Forbes conquered Arizona. In 2000, he's a bit player.

A scant three weeks before Arizona's GOP presidential primary, I wonder whatever happened to Steve Forbes.

You remember Forbes -- nerdy rich guy, looks sort of like Bruce Babbitt but with chipmunk cheeks and glasses. Fresh on the scene with his flat tax and plain talk, he captured the hearts, minds and votes of Arizona Republicans during our last presidential primary. Forbes' victory in Arizona was definitely the high point of his 1996 bid; he called it "one of the most . . . fantastic nights of my life."

Arizona Republicans were equally ebullient. During the weeks following the primary, my moderate Republican friends were stumbling about in a state of afterglow, confessing that at the last minute they'd dumped Bob Dole to vote for Forbes -- isn't he dreamy? -- and already talking about next time.

Joe Forkan

But next time is February 22, and while the 2000 Arizona GOP primary race has been exciting to date, it's been strictly George W. Bush vs. John McCain, with the state's heavyweights lining up on either side -- Governor Jane Dee Hull and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio for Bush, House Speaker Jeff Groscost and Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza for McCain.

So who's for Forbes? Well, there's Barbara Barrett, who challenged Fife Symington in 1994 but hasn't been heard from since. Other big-ticket endorsements: former state Republican party chair Dodie Londen, former state Senate president Tom Patterson, former congressman (albeit current Prescott mayor) Sam Steiger. Hardly a knock-your-socks-off list.

Anyone who's following the national campaign understands why Bush, the $65 Million (and counting) Man, and McCain, our Homeboy, would be in the lead here. But given his performance last time around and his fat wallet, I would have expected Forbes to be a force to be reckoned with. Instead, Arizona State University professor and pollster Bruce Merrill says polls consistently show Forbes way behind. A poll Merrill released this week shows Forbes with 6 points, compared with McCain's 37 and Bush's 30. And Merrill doesn't expect those numbers to change much.

"I think that he'll come in, spend a lot of money, and I think he will do better than some people think, but he will finish third," Merrill says.

It won't be for lack of trying. When I put in a call to Forbes' Arizona campaign manager Bert Coleman, I expected him to sheepishly admit that, yeah, the state's been back-burnered. I got the opposite response.

"It kind of baffles me to hear you haven't seen anything" in the way of campaign activity, Coleman says. (He actually returned the call from an Iowa interstate, on his way to a Forbes event there.)

No, I tell him, nothing but some nice roadside placards.

Coleman corrects me with a barrage of facts:

Since September, Steve Forbes has campaigned more in Arizona (11 days) than John McCain (nine days). That's more time than Forbes had spent in Arizona at this time in 1996.

As of December 31, Forbes had raised more than $200,000 from Arizona donors. During the entire 1996 campaign, he raised less than $195,000 from Arizonans.

Unlike last time, Forbes has been running a strong grassroots campaign in Arizona, with direct mail and phone banks. He's had campaign ads on cable television since June, and plans to launch new ones in early February.

And still, I remind Coleman, you're third. And everyone is saying you're going to stay third.

"I guess pollsters are now able to predict the future?" Coleman scoffs. "They said that about us in 1996. Three days before the election in '96 we were in third with 18 percent."

But one pollster, New York-based John Zogby, did far better than that. He actually predicted a Forbes win in Arizona in 1996. And this time, he says, Forbes will finish third.

Yes, Zogby says, Forbes has different opponents this time around. Flaccid Bob Dole and wacky Pat Buchanan gave Forbes a lot of wiggle room he doesn't have in 2000. But Steve Forbes was a different candidate in 1996, Zogby maintains.

"You have a changed Steve Forbes. In 1996, it was Steve Forbes the libertarian, the flat taxer, at a time when the IRS had been beaten up pretty successfully and there was considerable appeal to abolishing the IRS . . . you know, the kind of libertarian message that was represented by a certain wing of the Republican party. This time around, you've got a born-again, born-again Steve Forbes."

Forbes has painted himself as a social conservative at a time when the Christian right's popularity is dipping, Zogby says, and even more important: "Voters generally don't like candidates who change their stripes."

Voters like Dr. Jeffrey Singer. Singer, known in these parts for his ardent support of Arizona's medical marijuana initiatives, was a Forbes supporter in 1996. This time, Singer's undecided -- although he knows he won't vote for Forbes.

Singer echoes Zogby's prediction: He admires Forbes' economic positions, but doesn't like his stands on social issues. Singer's a libertarian. He says he ran into Forbes at a fund raiser in 1998 and told him just that. "I said, 'I think you're making a big mistake.'" Forbes' response, Singer says: "Your point is well-taken."

Singer insists he's not alone. He has a group of friends who feel the same. "Part of us really still likes him.... Instead, we've opted to just kind of sit on the bench," he says.

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