Parties rush to stockpile campaign cash

With campaign-finance reform pending, controversial fundraisers proceed apace.

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They came in taffeta and raw silk. In long white gloves and spindly sandals. In tuxedos and cowboy hats.

Republicans glided into Washington this week to turn the gilded crank on the party's giant money-raising machine. When they were done, the GOP was $23.9 million richer - and steeped in charges of hypocrisy over the ethics of its fundraising methods.

The controversy has less to do with Tuesday night's gala, which netted a record amount of dollars for a single Republican fundraiser, than with the night before. On Monday evening, 300 major donors and 100 other supporters were received at the vice president's mansion - government property that the law prohibits from being used for campaign fundraising purposes.

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The GOP says the vice president's reception was not a fundraiser, just a "thank you." But both events point to the fact that, with campaign-finance reform pending in Congress, the race to stockpile contributions is proceeding apace.

"There's a real money arms race going on," says Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions.

Money totals from both parties are not yet available from the Federal Election Commission. But piecemeal data and anecdotal evidence bear out Mr. Noble's assessment. In the first three months of this year, Senate Republicans recorded more than $18 million in contributions - roughly double their take for the same period in 1999 (the last nonelection year), according to Noble. Senate Democrats raised about half that much, but also bested their 1999 performance.

The Republican National Committee also reports a "record pace" of fundraising this year. Tuesday night's gala, which featured George W. Bush in his first major fundraising event as president, far exceeded its $15 million target and beat the take of last year's gala - headlined by then-candidate Bush - of $21 million.

The Democrats had their annual spring fundraiser last week, raising only $2.75 million. But mail contributions are at an all-time high, and the party's take is likely to increase this summer when the Democratic National Committee brings out its favorite rainmaker - Bill Clinton - plus other luminaries such as Al Gore. Mr. Clinton, who actually seemed to enjoy night after night of portobello mushroom appetizers, holds the record for the most fundraisers ever attended by a president. He's also the heavyweight champion in terms of amounts raised at a single event: $26.5 million at a DNC barbecue.

"It'll be much better than a normal year," says Jenny Backus, a spokeswoman for the DNC.

Several factors explain the pell-mell drive for campaign dollars so early in the season. One is the huge stakes of the 2002 elections, with both the House and the Senate up for grabs and districts being redrawn. This has led to the earliest launch ever of issue advertising, initiated by an aggressive DNC.

Another is campaign-finance reform. Although the reform process is bogging down in Congress, it still stands its best chance ever of becoming law, meaning that soft money - unlimited contributions such as those collected by Republicans this week - would disappear forever.

Indeed, this week's flap over the vice president's reception may serve to shine the spotlight more brightly on reform efforts.

In truth, no money changed hands at the Naval Observatory, the sprawling residence and grounds on embassy row, where the vice president and his wife hosted major-league donors.

But that's exactly what the Clinton administration said about its controversial coffees and Lincoln bedroom sleepovers - for which they were pilloried by Republicans.

Democrats are calling the Republicans "hypocrites," and at his press briefing this week, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was pummeled with questions about the event.

The event, says RNC spokesman Trent Duffy, was not a fundraiser and differs vastly from the practices of the Clinton era. "This is a night-and-day difference. This is simply a reception," he says. "It's different from President Clinton personally authorizing, initialing, and taking part in overnights for $100,000 and coffees for $50,000."

But many in Washington fail to see any significant difference, pointing out that the administration is still using government facilities in connection with donor activities, and promising special access to those who pay for it.

"These are distinctions without a difference," says Noble. "They are wining and dining their big donors at the vice president's house, which is government-owned."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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