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Issue Ads Become Common Weapon for Parties

Politics: The controversial campaign commercials, which are not supposed to endorse candidates, take advantage of 'soft money' donations.


WASHINGTON — Even as Justice Department officials investigate possible illegality arising from the use of so-called issue ads by Democrats in the 1996 presidential campaign, both political parties have spewed out a new flood of such commercials in the 1998 midterm election.

The latest example: A last-minute ad blitz by the Republicans, alluding to President Clinton's sexual misconduct as a reason for voting for GOP candidates. "Should we reward not telling the truth?" one of the new commercials pointedly asks voters in targeted Southern House districts.

The main reason these ads are increasingly popular with the parties is a loophole in election law that allows them to cover much of their cost with "soft money"--largely unregulated donations from corporations, special interests and individuals.

'96 Clinton Campaign Under Investigation

Issue ads first sparked controversy in 1996, when the Democratic National Committee sponsored commercials that spotlighted Clinton without directly advocating his reelection. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno is in the midst of a preliminary investigation into whether Clinton and his aides orchestrated the ad blitz as a way to avoid spending limits on his campaign.

Republican and Democratic leaders insist that the issue ads they are broadcasting this year avoid any legal problems, in part because they have been masterminded by the parties themselves, not by a candidate. And even though the ads often depict office seekers and give reasons to support or oppose them, the spots do not use such words as "vote for" or "vote against."

But Fred Wertheimer, head of the political reform group Democracy 21, branded these justifications "phony excuses." He added: "There isn't a real person in America who would look at these ads and think these are issue ads. These are clearly and unequivocally campaign election commercials."

Party leaders shrug off such complaints, having learned in the past that, if they have to contend with the lax arm of election law enforcement, it will not be until after the votes are counted.

Republican and Democratic leaders also fend off criticism by blaming the other guy.

"Look back at what Democrats did to us in the last election cycle," said GOP National Chairman Jim Nicholson, referring to the 1996 campaign. "They went after us [in issue ads], demagoguing us on Medicare and school lunches, and we weren't prepared for it."

As a result, Nicholson said, "we decided not only to be prepared to defend an attack from the Democrats but to go on the offensive to get our message across to voters."

The upshot was this month's launching of "Operation Breakout," a $25-million issue ad extravaganza reaching voters in 30 states.

One such commercial, aired on behalf of 13 Republican House members, including Rep. Brian P. Bilbray of San Diego, stresses the particular lawmaker's support for such issues as health insurance reform and saving Social Security. Instead of urging voters to cast their ballot for the featured legislator, which would cross the legal line, the ad simply urges voters to call their congressman and "tell him to keep working for our families."

As for the Democrats, nobody condemns soft money more vehemently than party National Chairman Steven Grossman. "The use of vast amounts of unregulated money sends a very strong message to the American people, which is that the political system is controlled by special interests."

But it would be unrealistic, he added, for Democrats to abandon the solicitation of soft money until Republicans go along. "Unilateral disarmament didn't work in the Cold War, and it can't work in American politics," Grossman said. "Any political party that ties one hand behind its back will be seriously penalized."

Scoffs Wertheimer: "The only difference between the Republicans and the Democrats [on the soft money issue] is that Republicans have more of it to spend."

Soft Money Donations Surpass '94 Midterm

One thing both parties have in common is that the amount of soft money they collect keeps growing. During this election cycle, Democrats have raised $78.8 million in soft money, an 84% increase over the amount for the 1994 midterm elections, while Republicans have taken in $93.7 million, a 144% jump over four years ago.

Both parties also have found a way to stretch their soft money. They transfer the funds to state parties, who then foot the bill for issue ads designed by the national party. The transfer's attraction: Election rules allow state parties to pay for such ads with about two-thirds soft money and one-third hard money (contributions to which limits apply). For the national parties, the proportions are roughly reversed.

"In effect, they are laundering the money through the state parties," contended Don Simon, executive vice president of Common Cause, another group pushing for campaign finance reform. "It's a scam within a scam."

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