Democrats envy GOP's surfeit of `soft money'

They fear spring offensive of issue-oriented TV ads could go unanswered


PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Many prominent Democrats say they are deeply troubled that the Republican Party is collecting so much more money than they are that it will enjoy an insurmountable financial advantage -- perhaps enough to cost the Democrats the White House.

These Democrats have a recurring fear: that their nominee, Al Gore or Bill Bradley, will emerge in late March from the peak presidential primary season battered, bruised and broke.

If at that time the Republican National Committee has a big excess of unregulated "soft money" over the Democratic counterpart, they say, the Democratic candidate would face a relentless blizzard of television commercials condemning Democratic programs.

Echoing other Democratic officials, Sen. Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the Republicans could "easily have a 3- or 4-to-1" advantage over Democrats. "I'd be surprised if we could put together more than $30 million in soft money," he said.

Torricelli speculated that the Republicans could amass $200 million, a figure Republican officials called overblown.

"We could be faced with a situation where in the early spring, the Republicans begin generic advertising with soft money and never leave the air," Torricelli said. "And the electorate could conceivably not hear from the Democratic Party until the national conventions. You could have, literally, months of unanswered political advertising."

That would be a reversal from four years ago, when President Clinton's campaign was flush and the Democrats began to broadcast commercials against Bob Dole, his Republican opponent, a strategy credited with severely damaging Dole.

The worries about money have stirred some resentment toward Clinton. Some Democrats complain that the president -- distracted by his efforts to collect money for his library; the Senate campaign in New York of his wife, Hillary; his legal defense fund; and his support for year 2000 festivities -- has neglected his own party.

Some donors expressed qualms about the party's prospects for the White House. Others said they had been tapped for other causes, such as the president's library. Another factor is disarray in the party, which has not had a finance chairman for more than three months.

Unlike the Democrats, who start the year with less than $2.5 million in the bank, Republican Party officials said they have stockpiled about $10 million.

This money is separate from the donations to presidential candidates, which are strictly regulated.

Soft money given to parties is intended for "party building" activities, not campaigns, but it is used for advertising on issues and therefore plays a key role in shaping the broad electoral debates.

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