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February Tab Drained Bush Coffers

Politics: Campaign spent $13 million in the heat of a tough primary battle, thereby helping to erase big funding advantage over Democrat Gore.


WASHINGTON — Fighting to recover from unexpected early tramplings by the insurgent candidacy of Sen. John McCain, Texas Gov. George W. Bush spent $13 million in February to chase the Republican Party's presidential nomination.

That was more than twice as such as Vice President Al Gore spent in the same period, according to campaign records filed Monday with the Federal Election Commission.

In the process, Bush blew the roof off historic spending records for presidential candidates this early in the cycle, spending a total of $63 million, including $21 million on television and radio ads, by the end of February. Throughout the entire 1996 primary season, eventual GOP nominee Bob Dole spent $42 million--the limit, since he accepted federal matching funds. Bush did not and is bound by no such ceiling.

"We've never seen a candidate go through this much money so quickly so early in the election year," said Anthony Corrado, professor of government at Maine's Colby College. "It shows the increased spending that was required by McCain's upset."

Larry Makinson, director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, remarked that "fiscal discipline is not one of the watchwords of Bush's 2000 campaign. They're spending money like there's no bottom to the well."

"But the money did what it was supposed to do," he added, "which is wipe out the competition."

Bush had raised a record $73.8 million through February, according to the campaign.

Yet the hard-fought primaries had drained his war chest of all but $7.8 million, accounting for debts, by the end of last month. This spending free-for-all upended the pre-primary conventional wisdom, which held that Gore would be broke and Bush would be flush when the two emerged as their parties' nominees.

Instead, for the first time in the campaign, Gore ended February with a slight financial edge over Bush, with $3.1 million on hand, including debts, and another $7.3 million on the way in federal matching funds. Gore's campaign had spent $33 million through February.

A computer analysis of the new financial information begins to answer the question of how Bush has managed to spend more money than any other presidential candidate in history.

The biggest chunk of Bush's money--$21 million, or a third of his campaign's total spending--went to pay for television and radio ads that ran in 12 states, according to the Bush campaign and an analysis of the candidate's spending by the Campaign Study Group, an independent Springfield, Va.-based firm.

And in February--when New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan and Arizona held GOP primaries, and the Bush-McCain contest was at fever pitch--the Bush campaign devoted almost half of its spending to campaign ads, the analysis showed.

More than a third of Bush's spending in February, $5.1 million, paid for electioneering efforts, including almost $3 million for glossy brochures and other mail intended to persuade voters to go to the polls to cast ballots for Bush.

The campaign spent $1.1 million in February--7.4% of its spending for the month--on get-out-the-vote efforts, including some controversial telephone banks.

Bush aides defended their campaign's unprecedented spending by pointing to the overwhelming portion of the funds that were spent to get the candidate's message to voters through advertising or direct campaigning.

"We had probably the highest percentage of any presidential campaign going toward voter contact," said spokesman Scott McClellan. "It was a competitive, hard-fought primary campaign. We had a strategy to win, and it was a successful one."

Bush spent very little money--about a quarter of a million dollars--trying to raise money in February. But he took in $3 million in donations for the month, including $163,325 for a fund to pay legal and accounting expenses in the general election.

Gore benefited from the fact that the campaign of his rival, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, lost steam before the voting started. Gore's campaign spent less than half what Bush did on advertising: $3.9 million in February out of a total $8.2 million.

The Gore campaign, which is taking federal matching funds and has yet to raise the maximum allowable, brought in $1.8 million in donations in February. By the end of last month, Gore's campaign had received a total $30.6 million in donations. His campaign calculated that it could raise $2 million to $3 million more. At that point, together with federal funds, it would reach the maximum spending amount allowed by federal election law.

Both the Gore and the Bush campaigns picked up their fund-raising efforts this month.

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