Campaign spending sets record pace

Outlays likely to exceed those of 4 years ago by 30%

Election 2004

October 23, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ST. PETE BEACH, Fla. - With about 250 hours to go before the polls open on Election Day, President Bush devoted two precious hours last night to privately courting donors for the Republican Party at a home in nearby St. Petersburg.

Bush's decision to squeeze in a fund-raiser in the campaign's final days is a fitting exclamation point to an election season awash in cash.

The major parties and their candidates are expected to spend a record-smashing $3.9 billion on campaigns for the White House and Congress, 30 percent more than they spent on federal elections four years ago, according to the nonpartisan watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics.

The tally includes $1.2 billion for the presidential race, which would make it the most expensive ever.

Bush and his Democratic rival, John Kerry, cannot raise more cash for their campaigns because they accepted $75 million in public funds after their conventions. But the two can continue collecting money for their parties, which can spend without limit on the presidential race if they do not coordinate with the campaigns.

The candidates are also building up their campaign treasuries for legal battles in case there is a repeat of the 2000 Florida recount in any battleground states this year. By mid-October, Bush had more than $10 million in his legal fund and Kerry had almost $7 million in his, according to federal reports filed by the campaigns.

Kerry campaign aides have crowed about having "resource parity" with Bush. They say they are in a better position than Democrat Al Gore was four years ago, when he lacked the cash to match Bush's advertising in the stretch.

Kerry has also taken time from campaigning this month to solicit more cash for his party's coffers. After the first presidential debate, he flew to Washington for a major party fund-raising dinner.

At his fund-raiser last night, in a backyard tent in a posh St. Petersburg neighborhood, Bush collected $1.3 million for the GOP, campaign officials said. They noted the fund-raiser had been set originally for last month but was washed out by a hurricane.

Scott Stanzel, a Bush campaign spokesman, said that party leaders decided they wanted a quick infusion of cash for the final stretch and that nobody could raise nearly so much in one evening as the president. He added that Bush "would be campaigning [in Florida] anyway the next day," so the fund-raiser fit his schedule.

"It is to our advantage to build resources that can be used in the final days," Stanzel said.

As they approach Election Day, both campaigns have been spending at a furious pace, each doling out roughly $14 million in the first half of this month, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

The parties have been throwing money around, too, mostly at the presidential race. The Democrats spent close to $52 million, and the GOP almost $43 million, according to their mid-month FEC reports.

Independent experts have mixed reactions to the spending sprees. In general, they said, the new McCain-Feingold campaign finance law - which raised individual contribution limits and banned so-called "soft-money" contributions to political parties - has successfully stopped unlimited donations to candidates by powerful unions and corporations.

To make up for that lost cash, candidates have turned to individual donations. Analysts say that is preferable to the union and corporate contributions, which often arrived with expectations of access and influence.

Advocacy groups - known as 527s for a section of the tax code - have filled some of the void by pouring millions into campaign advertising. Analysts said the 527s, which include the anti-Bush America Coming Together and the anti-Kerry Progress For America Voter Fund, could be cause for concern if they expect influence in return for their money.

"There is no question, if you look from the standpoint of getting corrupting influences out of politics as opposed to overall spending, the new law is working," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonpartisan watchdog group Democracy 21.

Still, he said, the new law has allowed major donors who want access to candidates to bundle small donations worth millions, bringing them attention from the candidates. The Bush campaign has bestowed honorary titles on its biggest bundlers, calling them "pioneers" and "rangers."

The law has also allowed financier George Soros to spend millions on politics, bankrolling anti-Bush groups like the Media Fund and America Coming Together. He gave them $5 million in the first half of this month alone.

Overall, the Center for Responsive Politics projects that the two presidential candidates will spend a total of $617 million in private donations for this election, $92 million from their parties and $187 million from the 527 groups.

FEC records show Kerry has about $24 million left from his $75 million in federal funds for the campaign's stretch run, and Bush has about $22 million. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has $24 million to spend on all campaigns, less than half the GOP's $53 million bank roll.

Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said the amount of cash being spent this year may seem startling, but it is due in part to the high ad prices and also a close presidential race.

"This is a hotly contested election, and there is a lot of passion out there," he said. "That does drive contributions."

Sun staff writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis, traveling with the Kerry campaign, contributed to this article.

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