- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2002

President Bush will have a huge advantage over his Democratic opponent in 2004 if the Shays-Meehan campaign-finance regulation bill becomes law.
The bill would double the limit on individual contributions to presidential candidates in general elections, allowing $2,000 donations and increasing the probability Mr. Bush could forgo federal campaign funding and its financial constraints.
Several Republican officials estimate Mr. Bush could raise as much as $130 million under Shays-Meehan, nearly twice as much as the $73 million of federal funding candidates in 2004 can get for the general election.
Once candidates accept the taxpayer funding, they may not raise or spend additional funds.
"Democrats were ideologically in love with the idea of campaign finance 'reform' and never understood how much this bill they supported would help us and hurt them," a Republican official said.
In his 2000 primary victory, Mr. Bush raised a record-setting $94 million of "hard money" individual contributions of no more than $1,000.
Democrats historically have raised much less in hard money. Al Gore was able to raise only $17.8 million for his presidential bid, about 20 percent of the amount Mr. Bush raised.
Doubling the individual limit doesn't, however, mean Mr. Bush can count on doubling the $1,000 that each contributor gave him last time. Fewer contributors can afford to part with $2,000, Republican fund-raisers point out.
The measure also would severely limit business, interest-group and individual financial contributions to the national campaign committees of both political parties. It was sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican, and Martin T. Meehan, Massachusetts Democrat.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, says the Senate will take up the measure when Congress returns Tuesday. It is expected to pass in the Senate, despite Republican leadership opposition, and to be signed by Mr. Bush.
The president's fund-raising potential may be even greater for another reason overlooked by campaign finance reform proponents.
Hard money raised for a primary can be spent on a general election campaign. In 2004, Mr. Bush will have to spend very little in the primary because he almost surely will not face a major Republican challenger.
By contrast, Democrats expect an expensive free-for-all among several major contenders in their 2004 presidential primary season.
In the 2000 race, Mr. Bush had to spend $86.7 million fighting off other Republican primary contenders. With little time left to raise more money before the fall elections, he chose to accept the $67.5 million in public financing of his general election campaign the same amount Mr. Gore accepted.
If the bill passes, Mr. Bush would be able to solicit up to $4,000 "up front," as a former Bush campaign fund-raiser phrased it, from individual contributors: $2,000 for the primary and another $2,000 for the general election.
Senate and House Republican leaders vigorously opposed Shays-Meehan and its Senate equivalent sponsored by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat for reasons having little to do with presidential elections. Opponents say the measures violate First Amendment rights and would impede party-building and limit voter turnout campaigns.
In defiance of their leaders, however, 41 House Republicans joined with 198 Democrats to pass the Shays-Meehan bill Feb. 14. Only 12 Democrats ignored their leaders by joining the 176 Republicans who voted against it.
Many political analysts have long contended that if the Senate passes Shays-Meehan, it would confront Mr. Bush with a hard decision. He could sign a bill even though he has said he opposes most of its provisions, or veto it and incur the wrath of its supporters outside Congress.
"There's a very real risk that enactment of this bill will de-energize the party's voter base," said Grover Norquist, chairman of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform and a leader in the conservative economic wing of the Republican party. "It will distress conservative activists who see the Republicans not holding together on matters of principle."
But Mr. Bush and Republican lawmakers face surprisingly little chance of a midterm-elections backlash from core Republican voters even if the bill becomes law in a few weeks.
"It's not going to have any impact, as much as we like to think it will," said Robert T. Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, which helped deliver the state to Mr. Bush in 2000. "The rank and file in our party are pretty far removed from the issue, so it makes no difference whether the president vetoes or signs it. It's a political insider issue."

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