WHEN THE PRESS CAME KNOCKING to ask William Eisner how his Milwaukee-based ad company planned to get Steve Forbes elected president, Eisner gave them a lecture on Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks. Eisner specializes in rebranding products that have drifted off to the penumbra of public attention. And after stunning the Republican establishment by running strong in the early 1996 primaries, Steve Forbes is such a product. Faced with the George Bush juggernaut, Forbes is finding that renegade candidates can't expect to hold enthusiasts from one leap year to the next. Only 5 percent of Republicans say they want Forbes as their nominee -- and it's lower than that in New Hampshire and Iowa. But selling a presidential candidate as if he were fish sticks has to be the silliest campaign strategy since Joseph Kennedy announced to his conclave in 1959, "We're going to sell Jack like soap flakes." Umm . . . then again, Jack Kennedy -- a northeastern patrician with a negligible national following -- won.

Eisner has designed a seven-ad campaign that will air over the summer. It's a $ 10 million buy: The ads will air nationally on cable channels -- CNN, Fox News Channel, and CNBC -- and on network television in early primary states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, California, Arizona (where Forbes enjoyed his most stunning success in 1996). There will be a four-week trial period, during which the campaign will step up airings of the commercials they like and scrap the stinkers.

It's a good idea. There's only one precedent for going up this early -- 18 months before a presidential election -- with a multi-million-dollar TV drive and that's the 1996 Clinton campaign. In 1995, under Dick Morris's tutelage, with a bundle of Chinese money, President Clinton defined himself as the author of welfare reform and 100,000 cops on the streets. Republicans want to believe that ad campaign didn't matter, because they hate to give Bill Clinton credit for anything. Democrats do the same because they hate Dick Morris. But given the president's wide margin of victory in 1996, the burden of proof would seem to rest with those who think the effort failed. Forbes has even more reason than Clinton to launch early. For one thing, he is an unusual-looking man, with a rutted face and a slushy, ticky verbal delivery. The better side of people insures that such superficialities get forgotten over time. Why not get them forgotten early?

Forbes's ads won't win any prizes. The candidate occasionally sounds condescending, as when he refers to "the American people, God love 'em." There are shots where Forbes appears to be speaking into a wall for the benefit of the camera. Among their strengths are a black-and-white scheme that, as intended, makes Forbes look presidential. And they do enunciate campaign themes.

The Forbes campaign has a formula, which the candidate has taken to repeating, "No message, no victory." Last week he got specific: "We had no message in 1998, no message in 1996, no message in 1992," he told CNN. That leaves the 52-seat congressional landslide of 1994, on whose small-government message he has staked his claim to the presidency. Forbes is trying to present himself as the privatize-Social-Security guy. He's trying to present himself as the spend-more-time-with-your-families guy, a vague pair of messages that allows him to benefit whether national opinion drifts towards the Christian Coalition values he's adopted of late or towards the Ripon Republicanism from which he sprang.

Although the ads have a public audience, they have a private audience that is just as important. Forbes is working on the assumption that there are actually two Republican primaries going on. There's an establishmentarian one between George W. Bush, John McCain, and Elizabeth Dole. There's a second primary that consists of anti-establishmentarian candidates Gary Bauer, Pat Buchanan, Bob Smith, and Forbes himself and also includes neither-establishment-nor-anti-establishment middle grounders Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle. None of these other non-establishment candidates has raised as much as $ 3 million. In such a climate, $ 10 million for a mere Forbes campaign bagatelle can make a daunting shot across the bow.

There is a realpolitik at work here. According to Forbes's spokesperson, Juleanna Glover Weiss, "Steve Forbes is the only anti-establishmentarian candidate who can go the distance." In other words, if there is one thing that stands out about this $ 10 million ad campaign it is that it is a $ 10 million ad campaign. ("That's at a minimum," says one Forbes campaign aide.)

Forbes has already put on his payroll several Republican county chairmen in Iowa. If he is now trying to intimidate his opponents with the kind of talent an amply funded, serious campaign can buy, he's doing a splendid job. John Herrington, former California state chairman, has just signed up to head that state's primary effort. So has Tony Denny, the master South Carolina organizer who railed against gambling money in the last election. Nancy Streck, an important conservative organizer has been on board since March 15. Sandy McDade of the Eagle Forum, who helped engineer Pat Buchanan's stunning victory in the 1996 Louisiana caucuses, is also now working for Forbes. Herman Cain, the black California pizza magnate who is Jack Kemp's leading acolyte on tax reform, is scheduled to join the campaign next week.

Pat Buchanan is the only candidate who has publicly stated his fear that Forbes will "buy" the election. But if Forbes can go the distance, bringing the votes of the less well-funded anti-establishment Republicans into his camp, who's going to complain about a "bought" election? George W. Bush?

Christopher Caldwell is senior writer of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.