SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Seeking to quell rising criticism of Democratic fund raising, President Clinton called yesterday for reforms that would ban many of the techniques he himself has used to raise record sums in the past four years.
"We have played by the rules," Clinton said in a speech here. "But I know, and you know, we need to change the rules."
The president's remarks came in response to attacks from GOP challenger Bob Dole and Ross Perot, the Reform Party candidate, who have been hammering away at the apparent improprieties in Democratic fund raising that have come to light recently.
But Clinton's tone yesterday was hardly defensive. He insisted that as Senate majority leader, Dole had been one of the primary barriers to campaign finance reform. And the president wondered aloud whether billionaires like Perot should be able to bypass rules that apply to everyone else by spending their own money to campaign for office.
The president did not mention the furor that his own appointee, ** John Huang, has caused by soliciting campaign donations from foreign business interests -- some of which have been returned -- or the $140,000 raised by Huang and Vice President Al Gore at a Buddhist temple in California.
Instead, in his address to a youthful crowd at a community college overlooking the Pacific, Clinton adopted a professorial air in ascribing the problems raised by the Democrats to a system gone awry.
"Everybody knows the problem with campaign money today," Clinton said. "There's too much of it, it takes too much time to raise and it raises too many questions. The parties are engaged in an escalating arms race."
Before the president spoke, Dole told voters in Columbus, Ohio: "The administration is in the midst of a growing scandal involving a flow of foreign money into the Democratic Party that bought access to the White House."
And speaking yesterday at Stanford University, Perot noted that the president had declined his invitation to debate "ethics" during television time Perot has bought for Monday night. "I spent $1 million and offered it to the president so he can completely clear his name," Perot said.
"Why would you ever think about putting such a person in the White House?" he said. "If you can think of one reason, call me collect when I get back to Texas."
The reforms Clinton called for yesterday are similar, sometimes identical, to those he touted while running in 1992 but that he seldom pushed hard for in office.
Setting voluntary spending limits for congressional candidates in return for free TV time.
Banning contributions from lobbyists to government elected officials they lobby.
Barring donations from unions or corporations to political parties.
Outlawing "soft money," whereby contributors skirt the limits for individual campaigns by funneling their donations through the state or national parties.
No longer allowing foreign-owned American subsidiaries or foreign nationals living in the United States to contribute money.
"There is no more excuse for waiting," Clinton said. "I tried to form a commission. But now is not the time for a commission. This is the time for action."
Clinton called on Congress to pass a bipartisan bill, containing most of these provisions, that has been introduced by Sens. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, and John McCain, an Arizona Republican and key Dole supporter.
Underscoring the highly charged partisan atmosphere four days before Election Day, the Clinton campaign released a praiseworthy press release from Feingold before Clinton even spoke.
McCain said he had not seen the Clinton proposals, but he dismissed the president's interest in the topic as campaign posturing.
"I doubt seriously that this latest cynical political ploy by the president represents a sincere commitment to push for reforms he has ignored in the past," McCain said in a statement.
Bill Hogan, director of investigative projects for the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, was also critical of Clinton.
"To propose to clean up a system that he could have cleaned up a long time ago is ludicrous to me," Hogan said yesterday. "This is outrageous -- the audacity to [propose reforms] without addressing this swirl of controversy surrounding the Democratic National Committee or other [campaign finance] issues that have come up in his campaign."
Dole and Perot, both trailing in the polls, have seized on the Huang revelations in the waning days of the campaign. This week, Perot made his debate invitation to the president. Yesterday, Dole made a similar offer, challenging Clinton to a third debate on the issue of political money.
Both gambits were summarily rejected by Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary. But Clinton's frustrated rivals are not giving up. They insist daily that Clinton, Huang and the DNC, which Clinton oversees, are selling influence, access to the president, even seats on foreign trade missions, in return for contributions.