- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 1999

CLAREMONT, N.H. Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican John McCain, who lead in New Hampshire but trail in national polls, promised Thursday to forgo unregulated “soft-money” contributions if nominated for president.
The self-described reformers each of whom has collected millions of dollars to run for public office signed an oversize, blown-up agreement in a chilly tent following their unusual joint appearance at a senior center.
“We pledge that as nominees for the office of president of the United States we will not allow our parties to spend soft money for our presidential campaigns and we commit to work together toward genuine campaign finance reform,” the former Democratic senator from New Jersey and the Arizona Republican said in their joint statement.
But Mr. Bradley offered the pledge with a hedge. He said he is uncertain he would give up soft money if Texas Gov. George W. Bush, not Mr. McCain, is the Republican nominee.
Each candidate used the unusual press conference to attack the other’s main rival.
“The vice president of the United States had monks pay thousands of dollars and violate their vows of poverty so they could spiritually commune with him,” Mr. McCain said of the Clinton-Gore fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles.
“When I’m president there will be a controlling legal authority,” he said, mocking Al Gore’s words after he acknowledged making 45 telephone calls from his office during the campaign, which some said was a violation of election laws.
Mr. Bradley, in return, raked Mr. Bush for his record fund-raising success.
“If it is the governor of Texas that is the nominee on the Republican side, I then have to deal with somebody who I think will demonstrate that you can have too much money in politics,” Mr. Bradley said of the Republican that Mr. McCain trails nationally.
“I think he has flaunted and he has thumbed his nose at the public-financing laws. He is not abiding by the spending limits in New Hampshire.” Mr. Bush, however, is not subject to any spending restraints because he has not accepted federal matching money.
Both Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain have acknowledged using the current fund-raising system to their best advantage. Mr. Bradley says the huge sums of cash collected from Wall Street bankers and Hollywood moguls he collected a then-unheard-of sum of $700,000 at a single Hollywood party given by Disney CEO Michael Eisner in 1987 did not compromise his integrity.
Mr. McCain, however, acknowledges that he has been tainted by the system he seeks to change. In the late 1980s, he was implicated in the “Keating Five” scandal one of five senators who took soft-money contributions from California thrift owner Charles Keating, who was seeking government favoritism.
Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain signed their pledge at a symbolic site the Earl Bourdon Senior Centre in northwest New Hampshire.
On June 11, 1995, President Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich shook hands at the center and promised to establish a bipartisan campaign-finance reform commission. It never materialized.
Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain are pushing an issue that fails to resonate with voters. In survey after survey, campaign-finance reform ranks near the bottom of voters’ concerns in the presidential race.
The McCain-Feingold bill that the Arizona senator co-authored continues to languish in the Senate. Mr. Clinton supports it, but many Republicans believe it infringes on free speech and would put Republicans at a competitive disadvantage.
Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain hope their joint appearance will bring them national publicity and help them cultivate reputations as straight-shooting mavericks prior to the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary. Both need the boost. They trail far behind Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore in national polls.
Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush say they too would like to see soft money abolished, but they say such a pledge would amount to unilateral disarmament.
Mr. Bush said in a statement Thursday that he wants to ban soft-money contributions from both corporations and from labor unions. For his part, Mr. Gore took out a full-page ad in the Eagle Times, a newspaper in Claremont. He praised Mr. McCain for demonstrating “real courage” on campaign-finance reform and took a swipe at Mr. Bradley, saying voters should “look beyond the rhetoric of the candidates to the real record.”
Mr. McCain said he is not worried that refusing soft money would disarm Republicans in a general election.
“Maybe we ought to think about fighting the battle of ideas and not the battle of bucks,” he said.
ABC’s “Nightline” taped the town hall meeting for a broadcast last night. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, citing a source at ABC News, told his national audience that ABC proposed and organized the event.
Eileen Murphy, an ABC News spokeswoman in New York, said Mr. McCain and Mr. Bradley organized their joint appearance and announced it last week. She said “Nightline” then proposed “a short town meeting” for which ABC would have exclusive broadcasting rights.
“If his suggestion is that we orchestrated the appearance of these two candidates to discuss the issue, that’s false,” she said.
Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain are Washington veterans, but they are working hard to cast themselves as unconventional reformers.
Mr. McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war, tells Iowa’s voters that ethanol subsidies are a bad idea. Mr. Bradley is campaigning as an unreconstructed liberal. He refuses to rule out a tax increase to fund his health care plan that would cost up to $65 billion a year.
The stakes here are huge for both. Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain are likely to lose the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 24. Both may need victories in New Hampshire just to survive until the grind of March.
Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain might be working at cross purposes. They admit they may be vying for the same independent voters Feb. 1 in the New Hampshire primary. Many New Hampshire residents reached by Mr. Bradley’s phone banks say they will choose between Mr. Bradley or Mr. McCain in the nation’s first primary.

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