- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 13, 2004

Through Jan. 31, according to the latest report by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), President Bush’s re-election team had raised a record-shattering $145 million in hard-money contributions, well on its way to reaching the $170 million goal the campaign hinted at last June. Quite impressive in absolute terms, the Bush-Cheney total through Jan. 31 more than doubled the previous record of $69 million, which Mr. Bush established through the first month of 2000, on his way toward raising a then-record $100 million for the 2000 primaries.

In relative terms, however, the $145 million raised so far and the $170 million goal are not nearly as impressive as they seem. In fact, as this page noted in December, new developments within the Democratic presidential campaign and among liberal interest groups strongly suggested that $170 million could prove to be well below what would be needed.

Democratic presidential candidates cumulatively raised $178 million through January; and they spent $165 million, much of it bashing the Bush administration. That is in stark contrast to the 2000 Democratic primaries. Through January 2000, Al Gore and Bill Bradley raised $67 million and spent $50 million, mostly attacking one another.

Democratic candidates through January had cumulatively spent $127 million more than Bush-Cheney had spent. And Democrats probably spent additional tens of millions through Super Tuesday on March 2. So, the drubbing the White House has received in recent polls should hardly be surprising. There are, however, surprises aplenty compared to the reasonable expectations prevailing last June, when the Bush-Cheney campaign embarked upon its $170 million fund-raising journey. Today, for example, the White House is almost certainly surprised by the emergence of a Democratic nominee whose financial future is anything but destitute.

Forecasting a repetition of the extreme financial problems that confronted 1996 GOP nominee Bob Dole after the primary season, the conventional wisdom last June projected the emergence in early March of an impoverished Democratic nominee who had accepted federal matching funds for the primaries and had already reached the pre-convention spending limitations that accompanied those funds. Then, in December, the Supreme Court upheld the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, which prohibited national political parties from raising unregulated, unlimited soft-money contributions from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals. That decision foreclosed the Democratic Party’s soft-money option, which could have bridged its nominee’s funding gap between early March and the party’s convention in late July.

Alas, none of the conventional wisdom came to fruition. Indeed, presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry, who decided to forgo matching funds late last year and is thus not bound by pre-convention spending limits, has just announced his intention to raise $80 million in hard money between now and the July Democratic convention. Moreover, in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s ruling, several liberal groups were created for the purpose of raising $300 million in soft money that the parties are no longer able to accept. These groups have begun spending this soft money on television ads attacking the White House.

In January, Republicans petitioned the FEC to prevent the liberal groups from accepting soft money; but a preliminary FEC ruling issued last month strongly indicates that no such abolition will be forthcoming. As FEC Chairman Bradley Smith, a Republican, told the New York Times after February’s preliminary FEC ruling: “Republicans are dreaming if they think they are closing Democratic groups out of the game.” Final rules governing the Democrats’ so-called 527 committees, which are named for the IRS provision that covers them, will not likely take effect until July. Meanwhile, this week Bush-Cheney campaign lawyers filed another complaint with the FEC, asserting the new TV ads attacking the president were illegal because they were funded with soft money. A final ruling on this latest complaint is not expected for six months.

If the FEC ultimately approves the activities of the Democratic 527 committees, Republicans are expected to form their own 527s. By then, however, the damage inflicted by hundreds of millions of dollars may be irreparable. It still is not too late for the Bush-Cheney campaign to ramp up its fund-raising efforts. In today’s climate, $170 million — even $250 million — seems far below the level necessary to combat the barrage Democrats have begun to unleash — on top of the nearly $200 million their presidential candidates have already spent.

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