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Geeky millionaire Steve Forbes is back with a flat tax, a new moral message, and a nagging band of protesters.

By Michael Crowley

APRIL 26, 1999:  It's April 15 -- Tax Day. Steve Forbes has come to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to bury the tax code. But Forbes himself is being stalked by the Grim Reaper.

Here in Portsmouth's quaint Market Square, the Forbes campaign is reenacting an obscure 1765 tax revolt, in which local colonists threw a British tax proclamation into a coffin and buried it -- dancing on the grave for good measure.

The imagery is perfect for Steve Forbes, who is making his second run for the Republican presidential nomination. Forbes so loathes the US tax code that he resorts to homicidal rhetoric when he discusses it. "We have to kill this monstrosity," he is fond of saying, "drive a stake through its heart, bury it, and hope it never rises again to terrorize the American people."

Forbes takes the stage to the strains of a colonial marching band and stands next to a stack of tax books and forms several feet high. Taxes being the one subject that animates his android features, he adopts a tight little grin that seems borrowed from Peter Sellers's Dr. Strangelove as he declares April 15 to be "Tax Termination Day." The tax code, he says, inflicts a Kafkaesque torture on Americans, for whom the approach of April 15 means nothing less than "hours in torment, wondering whether [they] can comply with this monstrosity."

Forbes explains that he would replace the current tax system with a "flat tax" -- a 17 percent rate paid by everyone regardless of income -- that is so simple it would require only a postcard-size form to file. To the cheers of the smallish crowd, he then proceeds to dump the pile of tax materials into a wooden coffin, pausing only to hold up one of the tax books and utter an awkward battle cry -- "Gobbledygook!"

But all the while the Reaper looms silently at the edge of the scene. He wears a black robe and greenish skull mask, and holds a coffin-shaped sign that reads THE FLAT TAX WILL BURY WORKING FAMILIES.

The Forbes people don't appreciate the Reaper's presence. An overweight man with a large FORBES 2000 sign tries to position himself in front of the Reaper, and to obscure the Reaper's coffin lid with his placard. The two jostle and step around each other like a pair of basketball players jockeying for position under the hoop. When I try to photograph the Reaper, another man jumps in front of my camera. "This is not the story," he snaps. "Go back to Boston!"

But resistance is futile. The Reaper is, in fact, part of a much larger band of protesters. Sporting formalwear, sipping fake champagne, and affecting ludicrous aristocratic accents, a group of liberal activists from Boston is here purporting to represent "Billionaires for Steve Forbes." They sing and dance in feigned celebration of the huge tax cuts they'd receive under his plan. Then they stage a funeral of their own, as a "priest" solemnly administers last rites to government programs that Forbes would lay to rest.

The tension rises in Market Square. "Go back to Boston, where they love taxes!" shouts one woman. "You never worked a day in your life!" yells another man. A nerdy kid who looks like a young Bill Gates -- with braces, thick glasses, and a windbreaker decorated with a Forbes sticker -- shouts back at the protesters through a megaphone: "I love taxes," he sneers. "I love big government!"

The frustration of the Forbes people is perfectly understandable. The protesters highlight a basic problem with this campaign: it's hard to take seriously. At its core, after all, is the story of a man worth half a billion dollars who is proposing what would be the biggest tax cut the richest Americans have ever seen; a man whose patrician background is the stuff of satire; a man who has never held elective office; a man who, most people agree, is just plain weird.

Many Republican insiders think Forbes is simply unelectable. "Steve Forbes makes Al Gore look charismatic," says Patrick Griffin, a New Hampshire-based Republican consultant. "I just can't picture a President Steve Forbes." Adds another Republican presidential-campaign aide: "How can a billionaire's son relate to Joe Six-Pack?"

So far, the polls reflect these assessments. With 10 months to go until the New Hampshire primary, Texas governor George W. Bush is running miles ahead of the 10-candidate field. According to a recent Newsweek poll, Bush is backed by 51 percent of likely Republican voters. Forbes is running fifth, with 5 percent, behind Elizabeth Dole, Dan Quayle, and John McCain, and slightly ahead of Pat Buchanan, John Kasich, Lamar Alexander, Bob Smith, Gary Bauer, and Alan Keyes.

After his 1996 presidential run began with a deafening buzz -- Forbes and his flat tax landed on the covers of Time and Newsweek -- Forbes finished fourth in Iowa and New Hampshire, and his campaign fizzled out by mid-March. This time around, however, Forbes says he's a more formidable candidate. He is wooing social conservatives by adding social issues to his economic platform. He's paid top dollar for crack staff in key primary states. He's even a little smoother on the stump.

Still, Forbes seems less likely to win than to drag his rivals down. Forbes spent $37 million of his own money in 1996, much of it on TV ads ripping into GOP front-runner Bob Dole. Weakened by the attacks, Dole was upset by Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire. He never fully recovered, and many Republicans still blame Forbes.

"Forbes almost single-handedly destroyed Bob Dole in the last campaign," says Griffin. "He will hurt whoever the front-runner is." Are you listening, George W. Bush?

Steve Forbes is lunching today with the Portsmouth Rotary Club. The dining room is adjacent to a restaurant called Yoakun's, whose tall blue sign features a smiling whale and the slogan "Thar She Blows!"

Any journey to the White House must suffer such humble beginnings. So Forbes is chipper as he sits through the club's business: a golf-club announcement, a collection for Kosovar refugees, and a raffle (Forbes himself draws the winning number).

When he gets his chance to speak at last, he starts off with an uncharacteristic show of looseness. Rather than stand at a podium, Forbes takes the microphone into his hand and throws out a couple of quick jokes. "If Elizabeth Dole can do it, why can't I?" he cracks, a political-insider allusion to Dole's signature habit of wandering a room with a wireless microphone. "No, no Oprah today," he adds, apropos of nothing. But the crowd chuckles nonetheless.

Finally, he makes his standard pitch: that the flat tax would simplify everyone's life and close thousands of tax loopholes. Fewer loopholes means fewer lobbyists -- who, he jokes to much Rotarian laughter, "go to Washington the way mosquitoes go to swamps."

What Forbes doesn't discuss is the principle of progressivity in the existing American tax code, under which people are supposed to be taxed based on their ability to pay. In its vaunted simplicity, his plan would amount to a tax cut for the rich that is shameless even by the standards of the Republican Party.

For instance, whereas Forbes's plan would give most middle-class families an annual tax cut of roughly $1500, he himself would save up to $300,000 per year. Nor does the plan tax income earned from interest, dividends, or capital gains -- the sort of income that goes mainly to the very rich.

And Forbes doesn't say what he'd cut to account for the perhaps $200 billion his plan would drain from the government: he believes slashing taxes will make the economy grow fast enough to make up for any lost revenue. That's called supply-side economics -- which, believe it or not, lives on in some Wall Street circles despite the lessons of Reaganomics.

These drawbacks notwithstanding, the flat tax did excite voters for a brief moment in early 1996. But the more they learned about the plan, the less they liked it. And there's even less of an anti-tax mood in America today. The tax burden on average families has actually been dropping, and polls show that voters want budget surpluses applied to priorities like Social Security and education before they're used to reduce taxes.

There's more to Forbes's platform, of course. He calls for medical savings accounts, school vouchers, privatizing Social Security, and a national missile-defense system. He also wants to arm and train the Kosovo Liberation Army.

But there's one signature difference between the Forbes of 1996 and the Forbes of 1999: his social agenda. After assiduously avoiding social issues in '96 -- "There's no real distinction between values and economics," he liked to say -- he has varied his flat-tax script to include red-meat social issues such as abortion.

Indeed, Forbes has reinvented himself. He talks about the "moral basis of a free society." He calls abortion "infanticide" and "a national tragedy." He rails against assisted suicide and medicinal marijuana. Forbes's Web site even features an icon labeled "America's Moral Compass."

Forbes says his new moral bent is the product of genuine soul-searching. But finding religion looks awfully convenient when you consider that religious conservatives may compose up to a fifth of the GOP primary vote and are looking for a candidate to rally behind. Religious conservatives are unimpressed with front-runners such as Dole and Bush, who have signaled that abortion is not a priority. So Forbes is scrambling for their votes -- along with Quayle, Buchanan, Smith, and Bauer. To aid his effort, he has hired religious-right leaders around the country for up to $10,000 a month.

Forbes wants to marry the social conservatives to his anti-tax supporters. "He's trying to bridge the two groups," says New Hampshire GOP consultant Tom Rath, who advises Lamar Alexander. But Rath wonders whether Forbes can pull that off.

"The harder group to establish credibility with is on the right," Rath says. "The more you establish credibility with them, the more people who like you for the economic message get uneasy."

The delicacy of that balance was evident at the Portsmouth Rotary lunch, where Forbes touched on a range of domestic and foreign-policy issues -- including his opposition to "Vietnam-like restrictions" on the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia -- but made only a passing, oblique reference to abortion. In fact, Forbes seemed to be going out of his way to hide that reference, a single line about "the freedom to be born." It had barely left his lips before he was off talking about missile defense.

It was as if Forbes felt obliged to have some mention of abortion in his speech, but knew that the business leaders at the Rotary lunch were the wrong crowd for it. If that's true, it's a pretty damning commentary on the sincerity of Forbes's new moral posture.

"To be a Johnny-come-lately on the moral argument is phony," says a staffer with a rival campaign. "The Christian conservatives have a lot of choices in this primary. I tend to doubt that they'll support Steve Forbes because they don't trust him. Where was he in 1996?"

After his Rotary speech, I ask Forbes whether the protesters back in Portsmouth had bothered him. Up close, he doesn't seem so stiff. His eyes are wide and blue behind his geeky glasses, and he moves slowly and deliberately. But except for what appears to be a layer of brownish makeup on his face, he is surprisingly human.

And the question doesn't faze him at all. "Only in America would people try to defend the indefensible," Forbes says as his aides lead him toward his gold-colored Chevy Suburban. "The tax code hurts people who try to get ahead. Why would anyone try to defend that? Only Al Gore would defend that.

"That's one reason I think Bill Bradley is going to give him a run for his money," he says. "Bradley understands the tax issue. Gore doesn't."

It's a good line. But many Republicans think that if Forbes really wants to keep Al Gore from becoming president, he should refrain from dumping millions of dollars into ads assailing Gore's GOP opponents. Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson has even met personally with Forbes to ask him not to embarrass the party and wound its nominee with another bare-knuckled ad campaign. Forbes says he won't engage in "personal attacks," yet that might not be much of a promise. His '96 attacks on Dole probably wouldn't qualify as "personal" -- they involved Dole's support for Senate tax hikes and pork-barrel spending -- but they were politically devastating nonetheless.

"Steve Forbes can be George Bush's spoiler, but little else," says the aide to a rival campaign. Noting how much money Bush has been raising ($7.6 million so far), the aide says: "He's going to need it. Forbes is going to write that check to himself and turn his Death Star on George Bush."

That's hardly the route to popularity among his fellow Republicans. As Republican National Committeeman Ron Kaufman, a Bush supporter, says: "Traditionally, in our party, paying your dues is an important factor. Unless you're a war hero, it's pretty hard to run for the presidency before you run for sheriff."

But Forbes presses on, undaunted. "There's a certain arrogance that permeates his whole candidacy," says the rival aide. Forbes owes the party nothing; he knows it is his checkbook that makes him a serious candidate.

Serious, maybe, but easy to ridicule.

"There are a lot of Republicans proposing big tax cuts, but I think his takes the cake for being a blatant giveaway to rich people," says United for a Fair Economy's Betsy Leondar-Wright. That's why, she says, you can expect more "Billionaires for Steve Forbes" on the campaign trail. "We'll be back," she promises.

Michael Crowley can be reached at mcrowley@phx.com.

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