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ECONOMY'S STILL NO. 1 IN PRESIDENTIAL RACE, FORBES TELLS UTAHNS

When voters go to the polls next November to choose a president, they'll pick the candidate with the best ideas for revving the economy, former presidential candidate Steve Forbes said Friday.

Forbes is in Utah to address delegates at the 1996 Republican State Convention, which takes place today at Cottonwood High School. Party members will spend much of the day narrowing the field of contestants for races throughout the state.But they'll start the morning off with a pep talk from Forbes, who gave a preview of his thoughts to the media Friday evening.

Forbes used genteel language to make the same point that served President Clinton so effectively four years ago: It's still the economy.

He likened the economy to a marathon runner who is in gold medal condition but has "cinder-blocks" weighing him down.

"The economy grew 2 percent in the first quarter," Forbes said. "That's pathetic. It should be twice that."

America is poised for extraordinary growth, but it needs a president who can unshackle its per-for-mance, Forbes said.

He believes, of course, that Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, the presumptive GOP nominee, will come up with the pro-growth agenda that will carry the party to victory.

Forbes dispelled polls that paint a "gloom and doom" picture of a Dole vs. Clinton race, saying it's far too early to put much stock in such surveys.

"The election is very fluid this year, and if the Republicans come up with a pro-growth agenda, it will be a very good race, and the GOP will triumph in November," he said. That agenda will likely include "good tax cuts" as well as other proposals for moving the country forward.

Pundits agree the economy will be a pivotal point this fall but, unlike Forbes, they see it turning in Clinton's favor. Economic forecaster David Wyss of DRI/

McGraw-Hill said in March the "misery index" - the sum of inflation plus unemployment - is at 8 percent, its lowest level since 1969.

Since 1992, the stock market has climbed 2,000 points, and the deficit has declined from $292 billion to an estimated $145 billion in fiscal '96.

Critics say the economy and budget cuts deserve credit for such numbers, not Clinton, and that the budget debacle reflects poorly on both Clinton and Dole.

Forbes dropped his bid for the Republican nomination March 14. During his campaign, he championed a flat tax, term limits, a new Social Security system and medical savings accounts. Forbes, editor-in-chief of the magazine that bears his name, spent $30 million of his own funds on the race.

That prompted Sen. Phil Gramm, who also sought the Republican nomination, to dub him "Richie Rich." Dole accused him of trying to buy the election and called some of his ideas "snake oil."

Forbes is a forgiving fellow, though. He endorsed Dole the day he left the race. On Thursday, Forbes said he and Dole were "in sync" on the philosophical thrust of the Republican Party.

As the election heats up, Dole will probably delegate much of his duties as majority leader. But Forbes doesn't believe Dole needs to step down from the position.

Asked what he learned on the campaign trail, Forbes said the primary process is too compressed to allow for a meaningful, focused contest. He also said he was surprised at the substantive issues raised by people whose votes he tried to woo.

"Often I got better questions from voters than I did from my friends in the Fourth Estate who were covering the campaign," Forbes said.