Bush seeks court block of ads by `shadowy' political groups

President targets `527s' that fund attacks against presidential candidates

The Nation

August 27, 2004|By Tim Jones and John McCormick | Tim Jones and John McCormick,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

President Bush said yesterday that he wants to pursue court action against political ads from "shadowy" outside groups that have bankrolled more than $60 million in attack ads against him since March, the latest development in a bitter campaign dominated by heavily financed, sharply partisan and largely unregulated outside groups.

The thicket of political intrigue and accusations surrounding so-called 527s has effectively overwhelmed the campaign discussion of the economy, health care and the war in Iraq. The Bush campaign, trying to distance itself from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth - the group challenging the military record of Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry - accepted the resignation of its chief counsel this week because he provided legal assistance to the veterans group.

But the accusations of partisan influence on these supposedly independent committees also point to groups such as America Coming Together, a get-out-the-vote group that has attacked Bush.

An adviser to ACT, Jim Jordan, last year ran Kerry's primary election campaign. Former Clinton White House aide Harold Ickes is a lead fund-raiser for the Media Fund, which spent almost $31 million on TV ads attacking Bush from March 3 through the end of last week.

With less than 10 weeks remaining before the Nov. 2 election, it is highly unlikely that a court will sidetrack the actions of 527s because federal campaign finance laws allow them. Furthermore, the Federal Election Commission, with whom both campaigns have filed complaints about 527s, declined last week to take significant action on the issue until after the election.

Also, it's not clear that the parties want the 527s to be reined in, because they are important to the Democratic and Republican campaign arsenals. The fight over 527s, named after a portion of the Internal Revenue Service code, is awkward for both parties.

In this election, Democrats in particular have benefited from the actions of attack groups such as the Media Fund and MoveOn.org. About $64 million has been spent by outside groups, including 527s, on television advertising since March - and all but $3 million has come from groups with Democratic Party ties.

Financier George Soros and Peter Lewis, chairman of Progressive Corp., an insurance company, each contributed $2.5 million to MoveOn.org.

Meanwhile, Republican-linked organizations such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Progress for America Voter Fund, which plans a $35 million television blitz against Kerry, help Bush. The latter group, made up of Bush backers, said it planned to launch the ad campaign despite the president's stated objections to 527s. Those supporters include Boone Pickens, president of Pickens Capital LLC, and Jerry Perenchio, chief executive of Univision Communications.

These groups have had a major influence during the campaign - much more than anyone expected - and they present a legal challenge for regulators because of the important questions of free speech associated with the proliferating television ads.

The announcement yesterday by the White House came less than a day after Republican Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam veteran and co-sponsor of the nation's campaign finance law, said he was angered by the veterans' attacks on Kerry. McCain said he intended to personally express his unhappiness to Bush. The announcement also represents a reversal of Bush's position on 527s during his first presidential campaign, when he said the exchange of positive and negative television ads is "part of the American process."

"There have been ads, independent expenditures, that are saying bad things about me. I don't particularly care when they do, but that's what freedom of speech is all about," Bush told CBS' Face the Nation in March 2000.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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