- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2000

Vice President Al Gore, conceding doubts about his credibility, yesterday proposed a $7.1 billion "democracy endowment" and a ban on unregulated "soft-money" contributions.

"I understand the doubts about whether I personally am serious on campaign reform," said Mr. Gore, who is trying to inoculate himself against the Clinton-Gore fund-raising scandals.

"And I know I may be an imperfect messenger for this cause," Mr. Gore said at Marquette University in Wisconsin. "But the real wounds will be to our democracy itself unless we address this problem."

Mr. Gore, joined by Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, pledged to renew his push for the defeated McCain-Feingold bill that would ban soft money.

Mr. Gore is bidding for the centrist supporters of Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who made campaign reform the centerpiece of his presidential bid. Mr. McCain reacted with skepticism, even though Mr. Gore promised to push for the McCain-Feingold bill.

"I welcome any good-faith proposal to reform our broken campaign-finance system. The campaign-finance abuses of the current administration prove beyond a shadow of a doubt how badly reform is needed," Mr. McCain said.

"While parts of his proposal merit serious consideration, to convince a skeptical public that his efforts are sincere and not an election-year conversion, the vice president needs to back his words with meaningful, bipartisan action, as well as call for a complete and open investigation of 1996 campaign-finance irregularities," Mr. McCain said.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, called it a "hollow" proposal coming from Mr. Gore, who made dozens of fund-raising calls from his White House office and who attended a 1996 fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles.

"Any promise to reform our campaign-finance system will ring hollow unless it is grounded in credibility, credibility based on consistency, integrity and disclosure," Mr. Bush said.

The "democracy endowment" would pay for House and Senate campaigns. Individual and corporate contributions to the endowment similar to a university endowment would be tax deductible.

Mr. Gore also proposed stronger disclosure rules for groups that fund political ads and mandatory free "rebuttal" air time for candidates targeted by such third-party ads.

The Republican National Committee called the Gore plan "a subterfuge" to cover up "the worst abuses of campaign-finance laws in history."

Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, a Washington watchdog group, said Mr. Gore offered a "promising proposal" with a catch.

"We like the strong statement that Gore is making by releasing a very detailed and comprehensive plan," Mr. Harshbarger, a former Democratic Massachusetts state attorney general, said in a telephone interview.

"Getting rid of soft money is important. The endowment proposal is creative and is an interesting idea," he said.

"The challenge for Gore is to show that he's different from Clinton. It's an issue of credibility."

A federal jury recently convicted Maria Hsia, one of Mr. Gore's longtime fund-raisers, on five felony counts in connection with the Buddhist temple fund-raiser.

Mr. Gore praised Mr. McCain, even though the Arizona senator scoffs at the notion of Mr. Gore as a champion of campaign-finance reform.

"The first choice facing us, as always, is whether to try or not," Mr. Gore said. "And in simple terms, here is the contrast: I will try, and Governor Bush will not. He is committed to defending the status quo."

Mr. Gore said special-interest money "is a cancer on our democracy and it is growing."

Under Mr. Gore's proposal, anyone who pays for a political ad that airs within 60 days of an election would be identified. Tax-exempt organizations that run such ads would have to disclose their donor lists.

Mr. Bush, who opted out of the federal matching system, has raised a record-breaking $70 million for his campaign, of which he has spent all but $7 million.

But Mr. Bush also has bid for Mr. McCain's supporters. The Texas governor calls himself "a reformer with results," and has issued his own campaign-finance proposal.

Mr. Bush would limit the flow of corporate and union soft money to party committees. But he would let individuals continue such donations. The Bush plan includes "paycheck protection," which would prevent unauthorized spending of union dues for political purposes.

The House of Representatives passed the McCain-Feingold bill by a vote of 252-177 last September. A month later, the Senate failed to break a filibuster on the bill.

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