Wednesday, November 12, 2003

President Bush’s campaign fund-raising juggernaut passes the $100 million mark this week, pushing him closer to a primary cycle goal of nearly $200 million — double what he raised in 2000, and a record for presidential fund-raising.

But why does someone with no primary opponent need to raise so much money? And didn’t the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law take big money out of political campaigns? Well, not for everyone.

Mr. Bush probably will need every cent he raises during the prenomination primary season to defend himself against the avalanche of television, radio, direct mail and Internet attack ads from hundreds of well-funded liberal interest groups that will hit him between January and Labor Day. Organized labor alone probably will spend $100 million in an all-out offensive against Mr. Bush during this period, and much more in the general election.

This is why he decided to forgo primary campaign fund-raising limits, knowing he will be the Democrats’ No. 1 target throughout the winter, spring and summer months leading up to the nominating conventions. The White House has mapped out an elaborate advertising campaign, and it’s going to be costly — probably the costliest in presidential history.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who once vowed to stick to the McCain-Feingold spending limits, also chose to reject public financing during this same period. He is now his party’s undisputed front-runner and, if he wins the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in January, is likely to clinch the nomination by the end of March.

So, if Mr. Dean had accepted public financing (up to $18.7 million in taxpayer dollars) in the primary season and the $45 million spending restraints that come with it, that could have plunged him into the difficult “dark,” cash-strapped period in the spring and summer (as it did Al Gore), when the president could have easily outspent him with his limitless cache of funds.

Instead, Mr. Dean is betting that his 230,000-person donor base will mushroom in the coming months to 2 million contributors, which could put him into the same $200 million league as Mr. Bush.

That sounds fair as far as it goes, but Mr. Dean and the Democrats have other pockets — deep pockets — to dip into to mount what will likely be the costliest campaign on record against a sitting president.

McCain-Feingold was supposed to ban unrestricted soft money to the two major political parties, but as this column predicted when it first passed, its reforms did not end the flow of big money from immensely wealthy people and special interests. It just redirected the money to other newly organized, shadowy, little-known groups.

For example: Last week, billionaire financier George Soros and one of his partners pledged up to $5 million to, the liberal activist Internet giant that has become a major grass-roots arm of the Democrats.

Beating Mr. Bush has become “the central focus on my life,” Mr. Soros told The Washington Post last week, and he is willing to put his money where his mouth is. His $5 million pledge brings his total contributions to Democratic groups to nearly $16 million — and he’s just warming up.

Mr. Soros, who says Mr. Bush’s anti-terrorist rhetoric reminds him of the Nazis in World War II , has become one of the Democrats’ major sugar daddies. Forbidden to write out big soft-money checks to the Democratic National Committee, he now gives his millions to a growing network of Democratic conduit groups — a reaction to the McCain-Feingold law.

This summer, Mr. Soros gave a $10 million check to Steve Rosenthal, chief executive of America Coming Together (ACT), another leftist activist group formed to mount a Democratic voter mobilization campaign in 17 key states. He got his wealthy friends to kick in another $13.5 million. He has promised to give John Podesta, President Clinton’s former chief of staff, up to $3 million for his new liberal think tank, Center for American Progress. He plans to give millions more to dozens of other groups.

Does all this sound like Democratic money-men are breaking, or at least skirting, the new McCain-Feingold law that limits individual campaign contributions to $2,000? In my opinion, it seems so.

The Republican National Committee raised this troublesome issue last week in a letter to Mr. Dean, urging that he ask ACT and similar Democratic finance conduits to stay within the spirit of the McCain-Feingold law.

But there seems little chance of that happening. Mr. Bush, thanks to the GOP’s huge donor base, can easily raise what he needs under the law’s contribution limits. The Democrats, hampered by the soft-money ban and its much smaller donor list, needs billionaires like Mr. Soros to make up the difference.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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