In recall, campaign spending laws may favor wealthy

Rich candidates stand to benefit the most from the byzantine laws governing fundraising in the election.

In another sign that California has gone topsy-turvy, money is loosening its grip on the candidates in the state recall race. For once, the best things in the life - appearances on television - are free.

Back-of-the-pack gubernatorial hopefuls who have raised less than $500,000, show up on local news shows nearly every day. Candidate press conferences are broadcast live even when no movie stars are in attendance, and reports on car chases give way to the latest poll results. Voters, expected to register in record numbers, are suddenly more interested in politics than in discussions of whether "Gigli" is possibly worse than "Howard the Duck" and "Police Academy VII" combined.

Meanwhile, fundraising by all 135 candidates combined may not reach above $50 million, little more than pocket change in a state whose registered voters nearly outnumber the population of the Netherlands.

"In a sense, this is politics as it's meant to be. This is almost Nirvana for reformers," says an ebullient Bob Stern, an advocate for campaign reform who is quite possibly the most ecstatic think-tank director in the state.

"Money will still make a difference," adds Mr. Stern, who runs the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies, "but it's not the overriding factor."

Maybe. But before you e-mail Thomas Jefferson with the good news, don't count out the power of the dollar. While some of the normal limits on campaign contributions apply to the recall, there are other avenues through which candidates - especially the wealthy ones - will be able to turn to their advantage.

Many avenues for cash contributions

Consider this: An Arnold Schwarzenegger supporter could conceivably give money to the campaign to recall Gov. Gray Davis, to the bodybuilder's campaign operation, to a campaign to urge voters to reject Lt. Cruz Bustamante as a replacement candidate, and to an independent effort to elect Mr. Schwarzenegger.

There is one advantage for the man in charge of Sacramento. The people who interpret the election rules consider the recall vote itself (yes or no on dumping Mr. Davis) to be a type of ballot initiative. That means Davis can raise as much money as he wants from individual donors and organizations. So can the recall's supporters. In fact, money is already flowing into a campaign fund, run by Schwarzenegger's Total Recall Committee, devoted entirely to kicking Davis out of office.

But the would-be successors, according to one interpretation of the law, are taking part in an ordinary election (the second part of the ballot) and must stick to individual-contribution limits of $21,200. "A whole different set of rules kicks in once they start mentioning their name and say, 'Vote for me,' " says Nathaniel Persily, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania.

The rules change, once again, if candidates are giving money to themselves. Just ask Schwarzenegger, who gave his campaign the gift that keeps on giving - $2 million. Or Peter Ueberroth, who awarded himself $1 million.

There's more. An individual, company, or organization - say, an Indian casino - could launch its own campaign in favor of a candidate without having to worry about any fundraising limits. "If you're saying yes on a candidate, you either give money to the candidate and you have limits, or you can spend it on your own and be separate and there are no limits," says education lobbyist Scott Lay, who runs the Recall Watch website. "You can also raise unlimited amounts to say no to a candidate."

Less time for campaign fundraising

All these rules provide plenty of opportunities for wealthy Californians to throw their money around. But no one thinks the election will set any new spending records. So far, all the candidates vying to replace Davis have only raised $7.9 million, according to Recall Watch.

Why? For one thing, there's not much time for contributors to open their wallets with the election looming on Oct. 7. "You don't raise $30 million, $40 million, or $50 million overnight," says Democratic consultant Darry Sragow. "Excepting somebody who is self-financing, it takes time to raise that kind of money."

Even if a campaign does raise tens of millions, it may not be easy to spend.

"There's only so much airtime you can buy "There's only so much airtime you can buy with just 40 days left," says Candice Nelson, professor of government at American University.

To make things more complicated for strategists, there will be little time for the typical ad campaign: from soft-focus minibiographies to attacks on opponents. "All that is compressed," Ms. Nelson says.

Can money buy an election?

None of this means that TV commercials, which can run from $50 to $50,000 a pop, will mean nothing. "Despite some excellent coverage in print and, for a change, on television, I don't think that always helps people make up their mind," says Shaun Bowler, professor of political science at the University of California at Riverside. "Free media gives you something, but not necessarily the vote."

Then again, money doesn't always buy victory in California, either. Michael Huffington, ex-husband of current gubernatorial candidate Arianna, spent $30 million on his Senate campaign in 1994 but lost.

And back in 1998, a gubernatorial candidate was outspent by his two multimillionaire primary challengers but won the race anyway. His name? Gray Davis.

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