Bush spurns federal funds

Texas governor would thus be freed from spending limits

July 16, 1999|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Flush with more campaign cash than all the other presidential candidates combined, Gov. George W. Bush announced yesterday that he would forgo federal funding in next year's primaries.

The decision, which the front-running Texan had been planning for months, gives him a huge advantage by freeing him from limits on spending in the Republican nomination contest.

If he wins that fight quickly, he would be well-positioned to launch an early general election campaign against his Democratic opponent.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about campaign money in yesterday's editions of The Sun misidentified the acting president of Common Cause. He is Donald J. Simon.
The Sun regrets the error.

Vice President Al Gore, the leading Democratic candidate, has begun urging his party to wrap up its nomination fight swiftly. But financial reports filed yesterday with the Federal Election Commission showed surprising strength for challenger Bill Bradley.

Heading into the second half of the year, Bradley's cash balance was within $2 million of Gore's, who is spending money twice as fast but appears to be losing ground to the former New Jersey senator in at least one early primary state.

Among Republicans, Sen. John McCain of Arizona emerged in the strongest financial position of those pursuing Bush. But McCain's $2.6 million bank account was less than one-tenth of Bush's record $30 million cash balance.

McCain, a leading proponent of campaign finance reform, criticized Bush's decision, warning that it would add to "the already widespread cynicism of the American people regarding the influence of special-interest money in politics."

Bush said he was acting out of political pragmatism and that unrestricted spending would give him "strategic flexibility" in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

"I'm competing in the primary against somebody who can write one check," he said, referring to publisher Steve Forbes.

In 1996, Forbes dug into his personal fortune and hit Bob Dole, the eventual Republican nominee, with an expensive negative ad campaign in Iowa.

Forbes is rejecting federal matching money again this year. He has put $6.6 million into the race, supplemented by $2.9 million in donations from others.

But while Bush justified his decision to skip matching funds as a defense against Forbes' wealth, some Bush aides have begun to question whether the publishing magnate will spend as freely this time as he did in 1996.

Getting the message out

Instead, Bush's action might be designed more for the phase of the campaign that falls between the primaries and the general election.

Bush, who raised a record $37 million since becoming a candidate four months ago, acknowledged that passing up matching funds would also help him "get my message out" during that period next year.

After Dole wrapped up the nomination in 1996, he was left at a disadvantage against President Clinton because his campaign had hit the legal spending ceiling months before the general election.

Bush announced his decision during a campaign swing through Iowa intended to build support for next month's straw vote of Republicans activists in the state. The Aug. 14 contest could force one or more underfunded candidates to drop out of the race, unless they make a strong showing.

Alexander, Quayle in the red

Among Republican candidates currently on the edge of financial doom, Federal Election Commission reports showed, are former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and former Vice President Dan Quayle, who both reported debts exceeding their cash on hand.

Bush's well-oiled money machine, which has already collected more than any previous campaign, will now test the outer limits of political fund raising.

His donors will still be subject to the federal limits on contributions: $1,000 for individuals and $5,000 for special-interest political committees.

Don Evans, national finance chairman of the Bush campaign, said he does not know how much his solicitors will be able to amass. But the figure could approach or exceed $100 million, according to Republican fund-raising veterans.

Those projections exclude tens of millions more in unlimited "soft money" donations from wealthy individuals, interest groups, corporations and labor unions that both parties are likely to solicit on behalf of their nominees in next year's election.

Bush's "arms-race approach" to fund raising "tells us that he and his so-called Pioneer fund-raisers are likely to raise extraordinary levels of soft money down the road, the most dangerous money in American politics," says Fred Wertheimer, a campaign reform advocate.

The Bush campaign has refused to disclose the names of "Pioneers," each committed to raise at least $100,000 in total donations.

Another political reformer, Jeff Cronin, acting president of Common Cause, accused Bush of "turning his back on the principal post-Watergate reform law that was intended to take the White House off the auction block."

That law also provides for public financing in the general election, which Bush could become the first to decline if he is the nominee.

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