They’re duking it out on the airwaves in Iowa and New Hampshire. No, the combatants aren’t Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and his main rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona. The bitter contest is between publisher and New Jersey resident Steve Forbes and a group called the Republican Leadership Council, which, ironically, consists of moderate Northeastern Republicans including Gov. George Pataki of New York and Mr. Forbes’ neighbor, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey.
The salvos between Mr. Forbes and the R.L.C. show just how far Mr. Forbes has come in the past four years. Where once he would have uncomfortably shifted in his well-polished shoes when asked about gay rights or abortion, now he makes a point in every speech of touting his social conservatism. So this Northeastern Republican is playing to the Christian Right at the very moment when other Northeastern Republicans are trying to move the party to the center, in the same way that the Democratic Leadership Council vanquished the party’s left wing in the early 1990′s and set the stage for Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992.
At stake in the battle between Mr. Forbes, the unlikely champion of heartland social conservatism, and the R.L.C. is the party elite’s effort to get away from declarations of cultural warfare which have alienated swing voters and refocus the party on pocketbook issues-the very issues that Mr. Forbes championed as a flat-taxer in 1996. The Republican hierarchy sees Governor Bush as its answer to Mr. Clinton, a man whose “compassionate conservatism” serves as a signal to voters that the party is moving away from slash-and-burn rhetoric.
The battle began in mid-November when the R.L.C. launched a $100,000 ad campaign in Iowa, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C. The ads, entitled “Warning,” featured a woman looking directly into the camera and talking about Mr. Forbes. “When Steve Forbes ran for President last time, I kind of liked him,” the woman said. “But then he spent all his money tearing down his opponents. He hurt the Republican Party … Now, I see he just might start in again with those negative ads. That’s just going to help the Democrats. Someone needs to tell Steve Forbes that if he doesn’t have anything nice to say-don’t say anything at all.”
Mr. Forbes cried foul, charging that the commercials were a back-door attempt by the Bush campaign to inoculate itself against potential, indeed inevitable, negative ads. “I think it’s a disgrace that you’d have a bogus front organization like that running attack ads against me,” he told The Observer . “If Governor Bush wants to criticize me, he should come out in the open. Let’s have a vigorous and honest debate instead of doing attack ads behind other groups that are funded by your big fund-raisers.”
Immediately upon the ad’s release, the Forbes campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission, alleging that the Bush campaign was behind the R.L.C. ads. According to the complaint, eight Bush “pioneers”-people who’ve pledged to raise $100,000 apiece for Mr. Bush-are listed as “leaders” of the R.L.C. Further, the complaint says, the chair and both co-chairs of the R.L.C. are key Bush contributors.
Mark Miller, the R.L.C.’s executive director, scoffed at the connections between the Bush campaign and the R.L.C. “I didn’t coordinate with the Bush campaign,” he insisted. “If you take any group of prominent Republicans, you will find a majority of Bush supporters. “
Though the McCain campaign also chimed in with its own criticism of the R.L.C., Georgette Mosbacher, Mr. McCain’s national co-chair who is a member of the R.L.C. executive committee, defended the ads. “I understand why somebody would think that ad would be specifically targeted at Forbes, but I don’t think that was the purpose,” she said. “The R.L.C. leadership has never discussed targeting any Republican. [The ad] means to speak to all candidates. It’s generic in its message. You can make the leap because Forbes did it in 1996.”
And, indeed, the Forbes campaign made the leap. They unleashed an ad attacking the R.L.C. as a “liberal” proxy for the Bush campaign. The R.L.C. came right back, airing a 60-second radio spot in Iowa that points out that Mr. Forbes was once a major supporter of the Committee for Responsible Government, the R.L.C.’s forerunner.
How far the erstwhile allies have strayed.
That Was Then …
The committee was formed shortly after Pat Buchanan’s sharp-edged speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston. Among its founders was Lewis Eisenberg, a prominent Republican Party fund-raiser and chair of Granite Capital who has since been appointed chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. “We sensed there was no organized voice [for moderate Republicanism], and we could indeed bring the perception of the party back to the center right,” Mr. Eisenberg said. The Committee was given its current name, the Republican Leadership Council, in 1997. The R.L.C.’s Web site describes its mission as promoting “fiscal conservatism and social inclusiveness” with no “litmus tests” on abortion.
Among the early supporters of the Committee were Governors Pataki and Whitman, both of whom are pro-choice, as well as former Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts and Gov. John Rowland of Connecticut. Another supporter was, wouldn’t you know, Mr. Forbes himself, who gave $10,000 to the committee in 1995. According to Mr. Eisenberg, Mr. Forbes “was important when we were forming this thing, both financially and in terms of his name.”
Though Mr. Eisenberg insists the group in its current manifestation as the R.L.C. is much more geographically balanced, it can’t shake its connection to the Northeast (read liberal) wing of the party.
And the Forbes campaign, particularly in conservative Iowa, is making hay of that. Mr. Forbes’ aides are openly chortling that a connection with the “liberal” R.L.C. won’t help Mr. Bush during the primaries, when conservatives usually hold sway.
… This Is Now
But the ironies go even deeper. Political consultant Kieran Mahoney has been close to the R.L.C. for several years, Mr. Eisenberg said. A 1998 poll conducted for the R.L.C. by Mr. Mahoney concluded that the party should focus on economic and education issues, not a “moral agenda.”
Mr. Mahoney hails from the conservative wing of the party, indeed, from a movement built in reaction to Nelson Rockefeller’s brand of Northeastern Republicanism. His father, Daniel Mahoney, founded New York’s Conservative Party in the mid-1960′s, and Kieran Mahoney broke into politics by producing harsh commercials with legendary Republican adman Arthur Finkelstein, who helped make the label “liberal” a dirty word in American politics. But now Mr. Mahoney is credited with helping produce a commercial warning other Republicans not to be negative.
Apparently all’s fair in politics. “Kieran Mahoney isn’t telling anyone not to go negative,” Mr. Miller said. “The R.L.C. is.”
Though Mr. Miller insisted the commercials were designed by a team including himself, Mr. Mahoney’s partner Greg Strimple and New Jersey adman Lawrence Weitzner, one Republican who has worked closely with Mr. Weitzner and Mr. Mahoney told The Observer that Mr. Mahoney “always writes the scripts.”
Mr. Weitzner produced nearly all of the commercials in 1998 for Governor Pataki, Senator D’Amato, former New York State Attorney General Dennis Vacco and the New York Republican State Committee. Mr. Mahoney was a top strategist on all those campaigns. Neither Mr. Mahoney nor Mr. Weitzner returned The Observer ‘s phone calls.
Mr. Mahoney’s role in the R.L.C.’s commercials has raised some eyebrows in Republican circles. How can “the same people who ran the most negative campaign in my memory [Senator Alfonse D'Amato's failed re-election bid in 1998] be criticizing others for running a negative campaign”? asked Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, who is chairing Senator McCain’s campaign in New York.
That the Forbes campaign has yet to go negative-in a nuclear sort of way-is a sign of its own frustrating position. Clearly, some Forbes aides, who have repeatedly hinted the negative barrage is coming, would like to see the candidate start differentiating himself from Mr. Bush. But to do so could have the effect of peeling voters from Mr. Bush and sending them to Mr. McCain, who is hot on Mr. Bush’s heels in New Hampshire and Iowa.
It is Mr. Forbes, himself, who appears to be dragging his feet. On Nov. 19, days after the R.L.C.’s “Warning” started to air, aides touted a “major address” at the Waldorf-Astoria that would be a response to Mr. Bush’s criticism of the party’s cultural warriors. But when Mr. Forbes stood up before an audience of expectant conservatives sated on roast chicken and puréed squash, he said, “I’m going to do with my speech what Washington does with your money. Throw it away.” And he proceeded to deliver a soft, mildly critical analysis of Mr. Bush’s much-publicized attack on the G.O.P.’s cultural right.
The next day, press reports asserted that Mr. Forbes had chosen “subtle over slashing” this time around.
Mr. Mahoney must be smiling.