GOP eyes Democrats’ soft-money lead

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Republicans worry that President Bush may not be able to fill his re-election fund with anything close to what Democrats are raising to defeat him next year, thanks to a loophole in the campaign finance law.

“The Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, MoveOn.org and America Coming Together are raising up to $421 million to spend on the presidential election next year,” Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie wrote last week to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, in a letter urging the leading Democratic candidate to take a stand against the flood of unregulated “soft money” contributions.

The campaign finance regulations enacted last year limit soft-money contributions to political parties but not to outside interest groups.

Mr. Gillespie said most of the money raised by groups such as MoveOn.org “is not disclosed to the public. None of this money is regulated by the Federal Election Commission.”

“Judging by their stated fund-raising goals, it’s clear our [federally regulated] hard-money contributions that are fully disclosed will be far outweighed by undisclosed soft-money contributions from special interests aligned against President Bush,” said Nicole Devenish, the Bush campaign’s communications director.

Democrats have responded by saying it is the Bush campaign that has surrendered itself to corporate money and influence.

“If the most special-interest controlled campaign in history wants to open a discussion about special-interest control, that’s a conversation we’d love to have,” said Jay Carson, spokesman for Mr. Dean’s campaign. “The [Dean] campaign has been funded by an average contribution of $77 from about a quarter-million people.”

Republicans say Democrats enjoy the support of more outside political interest groups.

“Currently, the Bush-Cheney campaign has a goal of $170 million, while liberal soft-money groups committed to defeating the president have pledged to raise as much as $421 million,” said Christine Diversion, communications director for the Republican National Committee.

Republicans say their party’s support from outside organizations has never been comparable to that of labor unions and other groups that contribute to Democrats. “We can’t compete in soft money with the Democrats,” said Republican campaign consultant Charlie Black.

Some Republicans doubt privately that the Democratic supporters can reach their $421 million soft-money target and express confidence that the Republican Party will attract unaffiliated groups capable of raising and spending soft money on Mr. Bush’s behalf.

Supporters of campaign finance reform had predicted that the new law would weaken the influence of special interests in politics. Yet liberal activist George Soros and his partner have promised $15 million to groups whose special interest is to defeat Mr. Bush.

Mr. Bush’s advisers thought the new campaign finance regulations would benefit him in two ways.

First, the law doubled the $1,000 maximum contribution from individuals. Thus, Mr. Bush theoretically could double the record-shattering $100 million he raised from donors for his 2000 primary.

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