LOS ANGELES — HATCHED with the post-Watergate revisions of campaign finance laws, modern political-action committees (PACs) continue to be the highest-profile lightning rods for public debate over US election reform.
But despite the growing relationship between the costs of winning campaigns and the amount contributed by PACs - the average winning campaign for the US House of Representatives spent $407,000 in 1990, one-half received from PACs - there is growing acknowledgment that the role of PACs is shrinking in the larger dialogue of reformist decisionmakers.
"The debate to abolish PACs is the most nonsensical debate in the modern era," says Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia who has written extensively about PACs. "If we abolish them, industry, labor, and trade groups will merely find other ways of using their influence."
"Cleaning up the PAC system is not enough by itself," says Susan Manes, vice president of issues for Common Cause, the Washington-based citizens interest lobby. "If we want a more representative government, we have to deal with the entire spectrum of influence money," she says. That includes campaign-spending caps, controls on "soft money" (that which skirts technical boundaries), and finding ways to give challengers even footing.
Those behind PACs say they have brought the average citizen into the political arena; they have shut out the millionaire contributors of old (by limiting individual contributions to $1,000); they have spotlighted the sources of candidate money and kept it traceable over time.
Those against say PACs have corrupted the political process with undue influence from special interests; they have heavily favored incumbents while excluding challengers; they push agendas that shortchange the disenfranchised that have no PACs to represent them.
As the elections of 1992 approach, two congressional bills have passed Senate and House votes that would kill or limit PAC spending, provide public matching funds to candidates, and subsidize political mailings. But both face further debate, virtually certain veto by President Bush, and possible Supreme Court rejection.
"Both these bills will be dead on arrival," says Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, an outspoken critic of PACs. "People don't understand what PACs are, but they know they don't want taxpayer money going into campaigns." There will be no campaign finance reform in 1992, he promises.
Cries of corruption had paralleled the meteoric rise of PACs from 608 in 1974 to 4,172 in 1990, with contributions growing from $12.5 million to more than $159 million in the same period. In the last election, PAC money accounted for half the revenues received by winning House candidates and nearly one-fourth of that received by winning senators.
But for the first time, in 1990, the average cost of a House race declined from $269,000 to $262,000. And concern over PAC growth may have reached a plateau, experts say.
"It is not as fashionable for corporations to be creating PACs in the 1990s the way they were when they were hot in the 1970s and 1980s," says Josh Goldstein, project director for the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The greatest concern about PACs today, these same experts say, is the power they give to incumbents. Of the $110 million in PAC contributions that went to House candidates in 1990 elections, more than $89 million went to incumbents and only $7.6 million to challengers. That statistic favors Democrats because more Democrats are incumbents, and because labor unions - one major segment of the PAC community - give overwhelmingly to Democrats.
"With all the voter discontent about Congress," adds Mr. Goldstein, the 1990 election sent "over 96 percent of incumbents back to office."
But, as Mr. Sabato points out, "the same biases are apparent [toward incumbents] in contributions from individuals ... who ask: Why waste money on contenders if incumbents almost always win?" PACs do give a higher percentage to incumbents than individuals do, he concedes, approximately 80 percent to 55 percent.
But individuals, most of whom are unaffiliated with PACs and political parties still supply about three-fifths of all money spent by House candidates and three-quarters that of Senate contenders.
"PACs seem less awesome when considered within the entire spectrum of campaign finance," Sabato says.
For all the generally bad press PACs have received in recent years, several key benefits are apparent in the 1990s, experts say.
"We know where campaign money is coming from and where it's going," says Herb Alexander, director of the Citizens' Research Foundation. "Twenty years ago we didn't." If that correlation raises hackles, he says, voters can register their discontent. But saying PAC money buys candidate votes is at worst wrong, at best simplistic. VOTERS are sending mixed messages to presidential candidates this season and are spreading consternation through both the Democratic and Republican Parties.
Balloting this week produced two Democratic front-runners - former United States Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Some analysts say the neck-and-neck race between the two could go all the way to the Democratic national convention in July.
On the Republican side, President Bush is winning all the primaries, but Patrick Buchanan's insurgent campaign is garnering enough votes to ensure trouble for the White House for weeks to come. Party insiders, such as US Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, worry that the GOP could be damaged by the intense, often nasty infighting.
The next showdown comes in South Carolina on Saturday, followed quickly by Super Tuesday primaries extending from Texas to Florida to Massachusetts on March 10.
Mr. Clinton appears poised for the biggest short-term gains. His big win in Georgia on March 3 with 58 percent percent of the vote was his first victory of the campaign, and he was exultant.
But Tsongas was also cheered by triumphs in Maryland, Utah, and Washington State.
The biggest surprise of the day came in Colorado, where former California Gov. Jerry Brown catapulted into a first-place finish with a surge of support during the final 100 hours.
US Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa could also point to victories in the Minnesota and Idaho caucuses.
William Galston, former issues director for Walter Mondale's presidential campaign in 1984, says: "The Clinton campaign, in its wildest dreams, never believed it would get over 50 percent, much less nearly 60. This is really eye-popping, and it bodes well for him on Super Tuesday."
Earl Black, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina, says: "The Georgia results will propel Clinton all the way through Super Tuesday. No one is in a position to challenge him."
Yet Tsongas could also hail his performance. His first-place finish in New Hampshire last month was often discounted as a regional victory. But after his two primary victories outside New England on Tuesday he could say: "Today I became the breakthrough kid.... By winning Maryland and winning Utah, we have put that issue [of regionalism] to rest." Even though Tsongas and Clinton could puff out their chests after this week's voting, the party hardly seems closer to picking its nominee. Each has serious we aknesses.
Claibourne Darden Jr., an Atlanta pollster, was unimpressed by Clinton's performance in Georgia, for example. Turnout was exceedingly low, he observes, and Clinton "still is not a viable candidate nationally, any more than Jesse Jackson, who won Georgia's primary in 1988. This primary does not represent the people of Georgia."
Mr. Darden is equally skeptical about Tsongas's success. He says the Tsongas campaign, in organization, fund-raising, research, field staff, and "everything else a good, first-class campaign needs" lags far behind that of the 1988 candidate from Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis.
The candidates this year are unusually weak, Darden concludes, adding: "People will always complain about their lack of choices, but this year it is acute."
Grumbling can also be heard about the Republicans.
Mr. Bush carried Georgia, where Mr. Buchanan had made his greatest effort since New Hampshire, by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent.
BUT in a worrisome signal, 44 percent of Buchanan's voters said they would not cast ballots for Bush in November. Buchanan's strategy of attacking the president on issues like school prayer and pornography are undermining Bush's strength with both moderates and conservatives in the Republican Party, exit surveys found in Georgia.
Del Ali, a pollster with Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, says the Bush-Buchanan spat is definitely beginning to hurt the president: "It doesn't guarantee the Democrats will capture the White House, but it is almost guaranteeing it will be a competitive general election."
Mr. Ali continues: "I honestly believe Buchanan now has a shot in California [in June], a good shot of embarrassing Bush there, or even winning California."
Ali explains that Republican Gov. Pete Wilson of California has slumped in popularity because of new sales taxes, and two simultaneous US Senate races there are also tearing at the fabric of the GOP. "So Wilson will endorse Bush, and Pat will go in and say, 'Wilson and Bush are clones [who raise taxes], and I am the true conservative. I am closer to Ronald Reagan, the greatest governor, and who are you going to vote for? Ali says.
But Dr. Galston doubts that Bush can be defeated, especially if one uses the 1976 Republican primary contest as a guide. That year, Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the nomination, and even after Mr. Reagan carried some states, Mr. Ford got the party's endorsement.
Buchanan's challenge isn't nearly so serious, Galston says.