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Tucson Weekly Primary Objective

Wealthy Republican Launches Multi-Million-Dollar Air War To Win GOP Presidential Primary.

By Jim Nintzel

JUNE 14, 1999:  STEVE FORBES IS back on our television screens.

The multimillionaire publishing heir returned to Arizona airwaves last week as part of a national campaign to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.

Forbes spent tens of thousands of dollars statewide in the first week of the campaign, with plans to spend plenty more in the months to come. Nationwide, Forbes is expected to spend about $2 million in the next few weeks, primarily in four states: Arizona, New Hampshire, Iowa and California. Over the summer, projected campaign expenditures are an estimated $10 million, primarily designed to cast Forbes in a new light.

Hank Kenski, Southern Arizona regional director for Sen. Jon Kyl's office and an associate professor in the UA Communications Department, says that Forbes needs to overcome two perception problems with the public: first, that he's not presidential; and second, that he has a platform beyond the flat tax.

"He's trying to get people to see him as presidential and electable," says Kenski. "The campaign is targeted for certain television stations, it's targeted for talk radio, it's targeted for high-propensity voters with direct mail. It's well thought-out. Whether it works or not remains to be seen. But given where he's at, running 4 or 5 percent nationally, he's doing what he has to do to try to change those numbers."

The campaign is the brainchild of William Eisner, owner of a Milwaukee advertising agency best known for a campaign to resuscitate Mrs. Paul's fish sticks. "He apparently does very creative and quirky stuff. He's been very successful in product advertising," says Kenski.

It's the first time a presidential candidate has spent this much money this early in a campaign.

But Forbes wasn't hesitant to open up his checkbook during his first campaign in 1996. In the weeks leading up to Arizona's February 27 primary, Forbes spent between $3.5 million and $4 million across the state to capture the biggest win of his campaign. He took about one-third of the vote and won Maricopa County. Bob Dole received about 28 percent, winning Pima County, and Pat Buchanan placed third with 26 percent, winning rural Arizona.

"This time, we will build on our victory in 1996 with a full-fledged grassroots campaign," promises Bert Coleman, one of seven campaign staffers in Phoenix. "That's one of the reasons we're starting these ads so early--to continue building what you must have in present-day presidential politics: a very strong grass-roots organization."

Forbes is lining up support from Southern Arizona Republicans. Longtime political campaign worker Jackie Egan is assisting the effort. State Rep. Bill McGibbon has signed on as Southern Arizona chairman, while one source tells The Weekly that state Sen. Keith Bee will be chairing the Pima County campaign.

Since his 1996 campaign, Forbes has been moving to the right, courting social conservatives. "He's shifted, without question," Kenski says. "He's aware of the fact that there's a substantial group in the Republican party that is very concerned with social issues."

But Forbes is facing a different field from the one he did in '96. Among his opponents:

  • Arizona Sen. John McCain, who postponed formally announcing his campaign when NATO began bombing in the Balkans. The stakes in Arizona are high for McCain. An embarrassing loss in his home state could finish his campaign.

    Kenski sees McCain, who enjoys high popularity levels in Arizona and good relations with the Beltway press, establishing himself as a maverick in the Republican Party.

    "There are risks there, because you're trying to win a party nomination and if you're wrong on Kosovo for a majority of party members, if you're wrong on tobacco tax, if you're wrong on campaign finance reform, it may well be that you do a lot better with independents and loosely attached voters, but I'm not sure you're going to endear yourself to party partisans," says Kenski, whose boss, Kyl, is co-chairing the McCain campaign.

  • Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the sudden darling of the Republican Party, enjoys a substantial lead in early polls, although he has yet to stake out positions on major issues.

    "I personally think it's Bush's to lose," says Kenski. "But he's not been out there being tested. He's not taking strong issue positions right now. But he does have name recognition--a good Republican family name. And he does have the image of having been an effective governor in Texas on issues like education and crime and taxes and juvenile justice."

  • Likewise, Elizabeth Dole, wife of 1996 GOP nominee Bob Dole, is enjoying an early burst of popularity among voters nationwide. But her lack of experience in the political field may prove a liability as the race tightens.

  • Pat Buchanan is making his third run for the White House. But Kenski says this time around his message may be blunted by a strong economy--assuming the economy remains strong.

    "Buchanan hasn't changed," Kenski says. "He's very committed to his principles. His positions are fairly well known. There will be a constituency for that, but it might be hard for him to broaden the base if the economy is good. Buchanan still may do in the rural areas, (with) that anti-establishment, anti-free-trade, anti-immigration constituency."

  • Former Vice-President Dan Quayle, who is now an Arizona resident, is struggling in his fundraising efforts.

  • And then there are GOP politicos who have yet to take off: former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, conservative activist Gary Bauer and former radio talk-show host Alan Keyes.

"A lot of these people are competing for the same folks," observes Kenski. "You've got Bauer, Buchanan, Quayle and now Forbes trying to eat into that. You've got Keyes picking up a little bit. They're all going after the same market."

An ABC/Washington Post poll released earlier this month showed 49 percent of registered voters nationwide favored Bush and 20 percent favored Dole. The rest of the pack remained mired in single digits, with 5 percent supporting McCain and 4 percent supporting Forbes, Buchanan and Quayle.

Meanwhile, polls of Arizona voters show many are undecided. An April Rocky Mountain Poll showed that Bush was the leading Republican candidate in Arizona with about 31 percent of the vote, up 10 percentage points from a similar poll in January. McCain, meanwhile, had dropped about 3 points to 23 percent. Dole was running at 12 percent, Forbes at 7 percent, Quayle at 4 percent and Buchanan at 3 percent. Twenty percent were undecided.

A January KAET poll showed 56 percent of voters had yet to settle on a candidate, 14 percent supported McCain, 8 percent supported Dole, 7 percent supported Bush, 3 percent supported Quayle and 2 percent supported Forbes.

But Kenski says poll numbers this early are fluid, particularly when the pollsters don't limit their questions to likely voters.

"None of these polls look at likely voters," says Kenski, who predicts the Arizona primary will come down to a race among McCain, Bush and Forbes, if the latter's advertising campaign is successful in lifting his numbers. "Likely voters are more attentive, more interested, often more ideological. The other factor might be how effective the campaigns are at identifying their voters and getting them out."

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