Democrats put soft money to use to redefine Gore

Bush camp criticizes issue-ad campaign

June 08, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The high-stakes, high-dollar, presidential election air war begins today, as Democrats launch a first strike financed with soft-money contributions.

Democrats plan to spend at least $25 million on a wave of ads promoting Al Gore before the national convention in August. The first Gore commercial will start airing today in 15 states, including Maryland, according to party officials.

It is the opening round in a campaign that Gore strategists hope will redefine the vice president's image and reintroduce him to the public as a leader in his own right. The 30-second ad, which will initially run through Sunday, promotes Gore's plan to help seniors pay a portion of their drug costs under Medicare.

Even before the Gore ad hit the airwaves, George W. Bush's campaign attacked what it called the vice president's broken promise to ban commercials financed with unregulated soft dollars. But a Bush spokesman said the Texas governor - and Gore's likely opponent in the presidential race - would respond "shortly" with ads that are funded the same way.

For months, Democrats and Republicans have been stockpiling tens of millions of dollars in soft money - donated, outside of federal election law, by wealthy individuals, corporations and labor unions - to be used in so-called issue ad campaigns, one of the ways both parties circumvent the post-Watergate laws that were supposed to limit money in politics.

This year's soft-money ad blitzis expected to be the most expensive on record. Over the past 18 months, the two parties have raised more than $200 million in soft money.

At a briefing at national Democratic headquarters, the party's House and Senate leaders said Democratic candidates at all levels were united over the prescription drug issue. Bush and the Republicans are also addressing voter concern on the issue but with a less expensive plan.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri called the drug issue "vital to our candidates." Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota said the party was hoping to "turn up the heat" on the Republicans.

The new ad never uses the words "Democrat" or "Democratic Party," though it does carry small print at the bottom, stating that the Democratic National Committee paid for the ad.

Instead, it promotes Gore as a fighter against "the big drug companies." Gore appears in the commercial, deploring what he calls the "ridiculously high prices for prescription medicines."

DNC Chairman Joe Andrew defended the use of party soft money to run ads that look like Gore campaign commercials. By law, soft money may not be used to expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate.

He contended that the ads are legal because they have a party-building purpose, one of the ways in which soft money can legitimately be spent.

"We are very overt about this," the Democratic chairman said. "If we are going to build a party, we need to win the White House."

The Bush campaign attacked the ad as proof that Gore could not be trusted to keep his word. In mid-March, the vice president sent an e-mail to Bush, offering to forgo party-sponsored issue ads if the Republican would do the same.

The challenge contained a loophole, however. Gore said the Democrats would refrain from soft-money ads only if Republican groups for Bush also held their fire.

"It doesn't surprise me," said Bush, of the decision to begin airing the ads. Gore "is a man who says one thing and does another."

But Gore's camp argues that Bush never accepted the challenge. They also point out that a group of Bush supporters in California, headed by former Gov. Pete Wilson, had run television ads critical of the vice president, thus making the offer moot.

Gore aides have denied that the ad campaign was delayed out of a reluctance to violate the vice president's challenge to Bush. But other Democrats not connected with the campaign, alarmed by polls that showed Bush pulling ahead, had criticized Gore for failing to get on the air.

The new ads, financed by the Democratic National Committee using a mixture of soft money and dollars raised under the strict limits of election law, were created by the same team that produces the Gore campaign's ads. The campaign and the party have consulted regularly over the ads, officials said.

The first ad is expected to be followed soon by volleys of commercials attacking Bush's record in Texas. Other ads will lay out details of Gore's biography.

Targeted at the outset are a half-dozen battleground states in a swath from Pennsylvania through Wisconsin to Missouri, where presidential elections are often decided. The Pacific Northwest states of Washington and Oregon, where Bush appears to be doing surprisingly well in early polls, are also included.

Three Republican states in the South where Gore hopes to challenge Bush - Florida, Georgia and Louisiana - were on the target list, along with Iowa and New Mexico.

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