When it appeared last night that Steve Forbes had won the Arizona primary, with Pat Buchanan second and Bob Dole third, it struck me that Steve’s chances of winning the nomination had significantly improved. This morning, when it turned out that Dole had finished second, only three points behind Steve, 33-30%, it struck me that Steve’s chances of winning the nomination had improved only moderately. As weak as he looks, Dole’s strength as the organization candidate remains formidable. He made the mistake of thinking he was going to breeze to easy victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, which meant he could squander his resources and be casual about Arizona. Steve’s victory in Arizona, like his win in Delaware on Saturday, were essentially gifts to him from Dole. Had the Forbes campaign not collected 20,000 votes in an absentee-ballot program earlier this month, before the bashing he took in Iowa and New Hampshire, he probably would have lost to Dole in Arizona. Dole will not make that mistake again and his organizational strength around the country will give him a clear advantage over Steve in future absentee-ballot efforts.
Buchanan made the mistake of misreading his surprise win in New Hampshire a week ago, when he edged Dole by a single point. He did well, I think, because he identified the concerns of ordinary workers regarding declining living standards -- not that foreigners are the cause of it all. Had he taken the trouble in Arizona to spell out his prescriptions, which on paper include a small rise in tariffs and sharp cuts in domestic tax rates, he might have done better. Instead, he leaned heavily on the kind of hot rhetoric that is so easily interpreted as reflecting racism and bigotry. Dole, who discovered that he drives voters away with his off-the-cuff remarks, improved his position by skipping the Arizona State debate and sticking to prepared texts. It has been two months since he has appeared on a Sunday talk show, where the Russerts, Donaldsons and George Wills await with tough questions he can’t answer. His best chance at getting the nomination is to make as few mistakes as possible and have the voters decide that neither Forbes nor Buchanan is safe enough to merely lose the general election without also bringing down the GOP Congress and state legislatures.
Steve Forbes has made a Lazarus-like recovery, but as you may have noticed he is still not being taken all that seriously by the Establishment press. It simply is assumed that the party bosses will not permit him to get the nomination. They carved him up in Iowa with an underground campaign portraying him as an “abortionist,” and in New Hampshire with a scandalous TV campaign led by the “popular” GOP governor, which insisted the Forbes flat tax would bankrupt everyone in the state. Thought to be deader than a doornail, the bosses left him alone to go after Buchanan. Now they will return to drive a stake through his heart. Their best shot is in the Southern primaries, reviving the phoney “abortionist” line. The Christian Coalition’s national leadership is bound to Dole, who has done their bidding on matters that come before the Senate. Where they find it impossible to sell Dole as a social conservative, they swing their support behind Buchanan as a tactical maneuver.
At some point, the GOP bosses have to realize that the kind of fundamental overhaul of the federal government Steve Forbes is promoting is going to happen sooner or later, and it might as well be with Steve, instead of a Perot or a Buchanan or some kind of Farrakhan. That hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t think it will until Jack Kemp and Ted Forstmann have been sufficiently impressed to give Steve their blessing. These are his highest ranking friends in the political and business Establishment, who have thus far withheld their assistance. As Steve heads off to South Carolina for a debate tomorrow night and the primary on Saturday, we can be sure he feels pretty good about Arizona, but still wishes he felt better.