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FORBES CAMPAIGN SLOWLY CHUGS ALONG

Steve Forbes has the most money in the 2000 campaign. He has the most committed staff. He has the most internally consistent message. He has the most devotion among conservatives. He has the biggest killer instinct.

He's also fighting to hold onto second place in Iowa and holding a distant third place in New Hampshire. That's the irony in a campaign that, in many ways, is being driven by Forbes, a billionaire who, as a late entrant four years ago, also scrambled the 1996 GOP race.

Forbes pulled down 13 percent in New Hampshire in last week's Boston Globe poll and only 10 percent in Iowa. His rivals, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have been getting the public support, the media scrutiny and the buzz.

But the engine of the Republican campaign has been Forbes. He made it imperative for Bush to release his economic plan months before a front-running Republican candidate ordinarily would do so; with all of Forbes' hammering on the flat tax, it was impossible for Bush to enter the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary without a comprehensive plan to cut taxes, as Bob Dole managed to do in 1996.

His flowering of faith made it possible for Bush to speak easily about his relationship with Jesus Christ in the Republicans' debate in Phoenix; with Forbes' early crusade among religious conservatives, it was implausible for a top-tier Republican to guard the murmurings of his spiritual soul, as Dole and Bush's father did in earlier contests.

Forbes also has led the Republican field into the dangerous terrain of Internet taxes, opening the debate by taking a position -- strong opposition to any tax on Internet commerce -- that is anathema to Bush's gubernatorial allies across the country but appealing to consumers, who are drawn to e-commerce in part because it permits them to avoid state sales taxes.

But Forbes has been winning more notice from his competitors than from the public. Though he won the endorsement of the Manchester Union Leader, voters seem to look askance at him; the Globe poll shows that only 42 percent of likely Republican voters in New Hampshire view Forbes favorably, as opposed to 63 percent who view Bush favorably and 76 percent who view McCain favorably.

Even so, Forbes has more than doubled his support in the past month in New Hampshire and is girding for a major television, radio and mail offensive that, according to campaign strategists, will provide a "sharper and more contrasting message." Translation: He'll trash the other guys.

The Forbes camp hasn't taken on Bush yet simply because Bush has been hurting himself. His debate appearances have failed to show command and confidence, not only in contrast with his GOP rivals but also in contrast with the two Democratic contenders, Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

"You watch these debates and you know that Gore and Bradley can muster issues," says Gregory R. Mueller, a top Forbes strategist. "Republicans are getting nervous about whether Bush has the command of the issues to draw the lines between the Republican and the Democrats."

In the next week or so, before the Forbes air war begins, the Forbes ground forces will be rooting around the countryside, looking for supporters in groups like the Gun Owners of New Hampshire, the Granite State Taxpayers Association and the National Right to Work Committee.

Meanwhile, Forbes strategists are hoping that Bradley makes a strong showing among Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa. Their calculation: If Bradley blows into New Hampshire in the last week of January on a gale wind of reform, many of the independents who are boosting McCain's GOP campaign may wind up voting in the Democratic primary to boost Bradley. The vacuum produced in the Republican primary could permit Forbes to sneak into second place in the Granite State.

But a presidential campaign is like a train. Sometimes the engine pulls into the station; sometimes it trails the leading cars. This time the engine is pushing the freight along, not pulling it. Despite all the chugging Forbes is doing, Bush and McCain still are arriving first.

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