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As Money Rolls In for Bush, Worries Grow for Democrats

The president may enter the 2004 race with the biggest financial edge in recent electoral history.

June 27, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The fund-raising drive that will bring President Bush to San Francisco and Los Angeles today could ultimately give him the largest financial advantage in recent presidential politics and provide Republicans an opportunity to reshape the map of national elections.

Bush is working to raise at least $170 million for a primary campaign in which he's virtually certain to face no significant opposition. At the same time, the Democrats face the prospect of a highly competitive nomination fight that could leave their nominee strapped for cash when it is resolved, analysts in both parties say.

"In all likelihood, Bush is going to have the greatest election-year financial advantage of any candidate since the federal election campaign act was adopted" in 1974 after the Watergate scandal, said Anthony Corrado, a campaign finance expert at Colby College in Maine.

That advantage could threaten Democrats most dramatically just after they settle on their nominee, which likely will occur in late February or early March, following a spate of primaries.

At that point, Democrats could face a nightmare scenario: a nominee with little money left after a bruising primary fight; a Democratic National Committee weakened by the ban on the unlimited contributions known as "soft" money that previously accounted for most of its budget, and a president sitting on more cash than any White House candidate ever.

Taken together, these developments could allow Bush to spend massive sums to tar Democratic nominee and burnish his own image in key states. The Democrats, meanwhile, would be unable to come close to matching Bush's spending. This disparity could last until the 2004 Democratic convention in late July. "It is a massive disadvantage for us, no question about it," said Jim Jordan, presidential campaign manager for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) "It is going to be a long, cold, wet spring for the [Democratic] nominee."

This imposing scenario is already inspiring a flurry of activity on both sides.

Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000, said she is urging the Democratic presidential contenders to slash their spending -- so that whoever wins has more left next year.

"These guys have got to cut out every ounce of fat in their budget and put away as much money as possible for [next spring], when the Bush campaign will be able to send in armies of troops and a cadre of media consultants in these battleground states," she said.

At the same time, several Democratic interest groups are trying to organize independent spending campaigns for the nominee next spring and summer. Under the campaign finance law Bush signed last year, these efforts still could be funded with soft-money donations -- as long as the politicking is not coordinated with the nominee's campaign and ends 60 days before the general election.

In the most ambitious such effort, Harold M. Ickes, a top reelection strategist for President Clinton in 1996, is hoping to raise tens of millions of dollars from donors who previously funneled soft money to the DNC and other party committees.

The Bush team, for its part, is exploring the possibilities created by the unprecedented funds it is rapidly collecting.

One Republican familiar with White House thinking said the Bush campaign is not inclined to begin its advertising as early as did Clinton, whose first reelection commercials aired in mid-1995.

But the well-connected Republican said that when the Bush campaign does begin advertising, it will invest not only in the states both sides have decided are battlegrounds -- such as Florida was in 2000 -- but "some that weren't close" to voting for the GOP ticket in that year's contest. The source did not specify these states, but other analysts have said they could include California, New York and New Jersey. .

Part of Bush's anticipated financial advantage is inherent in his position as a president unlikely to face a tough primary challenge. That means he can target the money he raises for an essentially nonexistent primary in ways that help him in the general election.

The Democratic presidential contenders, by contrast, will be forced to concentrate their spending in the caucus and primary states that will determine the nomination.

All of the Democrats are likely to accept public matching funds, which means they will have to abide by a spending limit for the primary campaign expected to be roughly $50 million. Because the Democratic race is so competitive, most analysts believe the eventual winner will be forced to spend at least $40 million -- and perhaps several million more -- by the time the contest is settled.

That would leave the winner legally prohibited from spending or raising much additional money until the Democratic convention in late July 2004, when the nominee will receive federal money to finance the general election campaign.

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