WASHINGTON - As the national political parties and candidates prepare for next year's elections, the campaign fund-raising rules are shifting like sand in a windstorm.
"There's a certain amount of blindness here right now," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Democrat and prolific fund-raiser for his party. "You don't know whether you are operating under old rules or new rules or the old new rules."
With the opinion issued Friday by a three-judge panel, a new campaign finance law, which had banned political parties from raising unlimited "soft money" from wealthy people, corporations and unions, has been tossed out. But the judges said soft money - contributions given to a political party, not to the campaign of a specific candidate - still may not be spent for television ads supporting or opposing federal candidates.
After operating since November under limits set in the law sponsored by Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, political professionals are left to decide whether to start raising soft money again or wait for the Supreme Court to give the final word.
At the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for example, officials don't want to be left behind by their Republican counterparts when it comes to cash on hand.
"I think it's fair to say we are not going to go to a boxing match with our hands tied behind our back," said spokesman Kori Bernards.
But Feingold warned that everyone should proceed with caution: "I'm not sure they're going to feel comfortable doing that. If the Supreme Court goes the other way, I'm not sure they are protected."
The Federal Election Commission has said in past cases that candidates and parties who engage in activities prohibited by a law that is overturned by a lower court face prosecution if a higher court reinstates the law.
Benjamin Ginsberg, attorney for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he is not recommending that his clients begin raising soft money tomorrow morning.
"It makes life a little bit challenging," said Ginsberg, pointing out the likelihood that campaign finance rules could change again.
Years ago, political parties raised soft money to pay for get-out-the-vote efforts and party-building activities, such as registering voters.
Over the past decade, though, the parties began using those unlimited donations for television commercials for and against candidates running for federal office.
With the new use, soft money fund-raising skyrocketed. In the 2000 election cycle, Democrats raised $200 million, and the GOP raised $222 million, with most of it dedicated to advertising.
Besides banning the huge soft money contributions, the McCain-Feingold law also restricted political issue advertising paid for by interest groups in the weeks before a primary or general election if they were financed by unlimited union and corporate dollars. The federal court also struck down that prohibition.
Fred Wertheimer, president of the reform group Democracy 21 and a longtime proponent of campaign finance reform, said he and other lawyers are deciding whether to ask the Supreme Court to issue a stay of Friday's ruling. That would stop soft-money fund raising before the high court issues a decision.
Jill Zuckman is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Jeff Zeleny of the Tribune contributed to this article.