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Done in by Delaware, Forbes folds his tent

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 10, 2000


In the end, one of the smallest states knocked out the candidate with the biggest wallet.

Even Steve Forbes was forced to acknowledge it would be insane to spend more of his fortune chasing the presidency after placing third in Delaware on Tuesday. He couldn't even finish ahead of John McCain, who won 25 percent of the vote and finished second to George W. Bush without setting foot in the state.

So Forbes is parking his buses and preserving his trust funds. He will announce this afternoon he is dropping out of the race for president. All it took was Delaware and kissing goodbye $66-million of his hard-earned inheritance in two failed campaigns.

Estimated cost so far of each of the 61,737 votes Forbes received in Iowa, New Hampshire and Delaware: $464.

Flashes of personality on the campaign trail: 0.

Value of the experience for the multimillionaire publisher: priceless.

The end came quickly.

John Dowless heard it first from his mother. The head of Forbes' Florida effort returned to Orlando late Tuesday night from Indiana, where he had been gathering signatures to get his candidate on the ballot for the May primary there. He was still sleeping when his mother called Wednesday morning.

"It's not a surprise," Dowless said after a conference call with other Forbes staffers. "I knew if we did not do well in Delaware, I personally did not see how we could justify staying in the race."

Now the Republican contest has become a one-on-one elbow-throwing, trash-talking brawl between Bush and McCain. Former ambassador Alan Keyes is still campaigning but not in the game.

The best part is there will be no more six-way Republican debates with 60-second answers.

Even if Keyes is still on stage, next week's debate in South Carolina will be a showdown between the Texas governor against the Arizona senator. Don't expect them to shake hands again and swear off negative attacks.

By all accounts, Forbes was a better candidate in 2000 than he was in 1996. The first campaign was all about the flat tax and television ads. This time Forbes assembled a large grass-roots organization and broadened his message to lure Christian Coalition members and other social conservatives.

But there are some things money can't buy.

One is personality.

Forbes tried hard. In Iowa and New Hampshire, he would walk into a room and force himself to shake hands and say a few words. But small talk was a big challenge.

In an interview in Tampa late last fall, Forbes paused and watched me take notes.

"You're left handed," he said.

That's right, I said.

"I'm left handed," he smiled, pleased that we had connected.

No matter how many town meetings Forbes held in New Hampshire, he could not overcome his mechanical style. Like a wind-up doll, his forearm moved stiffly up and down to make a point as though his elbow was the only moving part.

"Did not catch on. Could not catch on," Bush campaign consultant Karl Rove said of Forbes two days before the New Hampshire primary. "Voters want to meet you, but they also want to feel warm and fuzzy about you."

Money also could not force voters to buy Forbes' out-of-date message.

They would come by the hundreds to eat his free food, slip on his free orange T-shirts or try on his free hats, but he could not close the deal. His flat tax plan that became a national issue in 1996 would not sell in an era of record prosperity. Too few social conservatives outside Iowa bought his newfound interest in banning abortion and creating tuition vouchers.

Forbes leaves behind a memorable line or two.

One of my favorites was one of his standards about the tax code: "We're going to treat it like one of those monsters in the old black and white movies. We're going to kill it, drive a stake through its heart and make sure it never rises again to terrorize the American people."

Another moment for the highlight reel came from an exchange with Sen. Orrin Hatch during one of the debates.

Hatch: "I'm going to give you a home run ball, Steve. . . ."

Forbes: "That usually means hold your wallet."

Hatch: "Steve, I couldn't even lift your wallet is all I can say."

Despite laying the groundwork for this campaign as soon as his 1996 bid ended, Forbes faced the same difficulties as the Republicans who dropped out before him. He could not compete with the Bush machine, and he could not unite conservative voters who were divided between Bush, Keyes and Gary Bauer.

After finishing a strong second to Bush in the Iowa caucuses, Forbes was a distant third in the New Hampshire primary. Delaware was the final indignity.

Now Forbes' supporters are up for grabs. Most are expected to wind up with Bush. The anti-tax voters will like the Texas governor's deep tax cuts. The social conservatives, despite their frustration that Bush refuses litmus tests on nominating Supreme Court justices, are likely to wind up on his team as well.

"In some cases Bush may have stronger appeal," said Dowless, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition in Florida. "But he is going to have to come out stronger."

Running for president wasn't a total loss for Forbes.

He elevated the national discussion about a flat tax and medical savings accounts. And while he promoted the family name over the last four years, the circulation for Forbes magazine went up by about 85,000.

That's more new subscribers than votes.

-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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