Now it's thunder from left, too, in the ad war

A decision by liberal group Moveon to run feisty anti-Bush spots raises stakes of the on-air fight - and soft money.

The ad is called "$87 billion MisLeader," and it challenges President Bush's spending priorities.

Amid shots of a schoolboy at his desk, a teacher at a chalkboard, and a little girl with a thermometer in her mouth, a voice tells viewers, "George Bush is going to spend $87 billion more in Iraq. But after almost three years, where's his plan for taking care of America?"

The Moveon.org Voter Fund, the ad-making wing of a liberal Web-based organization, is betting that this message will resonate among voters, in an ad campaign slated to cost $1.8 million. The ad, which began airing Thursday, will run for the next two weeks in Ohio, Nevada, Florida, Missouri, and West Virginia - key battleground states in the 2004 presidential race.

Between now and March 2004, Moveon hopes to spend $15 million on ads - $10 million from its small-scale donors and the rest in matching funds from billionaire financier George Soros, and Peter Lewis, chairman of Progressive Corp.

This effort represents but a tiny fraction of the advocacy work - ads, voter identification and registration, and get-out-the- vote drives - that outside groups will engage in this election cycle to an unprecedented degree. The reason: The year-old ban on so-called "soft money" donations to the political parties, as part of the new McCain Feingold law, has curtailed the ability to perform those functions, especially in the Democratic party.

Now, a growing roster of so-called 527 groups - named for the IRS provision that governs them - are gathering millions of dollars of unregulated soft money for the 2004 election, to be deployed in much the same way that the party used to use soft money. For Democrats, this shift of soft money to outside groups is especially important, since the party is less successful at raising "hard money" contributions (which are limited and regulated) than are Republicans.

So far, in the 2004 election cycle, Democratic party committees have raised $75 million and the Republicans have raised $174 million. To longtime observers of the campaign-finance system, the brave new world of McCain Feingold is still unfolding - but problems are already emerging.

"What I think we've already seen ,and can anticipate even under [McCain Feingold], is a shift by well-funded interests or individuals to continue to try to influence the outcome of federal elections, and we end up with even less disclosure than we had under soft money," says David Magleby, an expert on campaign finance at Brigham Young University.

The large, high-profile donations by Messrs. Soros and Lewis to several groups are atypical in that they were well-publicized. What concerns proponents of the soft-money ban is that many of the donations will be made anonymously, and voters will not know who is behind various ad campaigns.

So far, the original House and Senate sponsors of the campaign-finance legislation, which was years in the making, are in "monitoring mode," watching to see how implementation pans out. Another important development will come soon, when the US Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the law's many provisions.

Essentially, says one Senate aide, the law represents what was "doable" after years of struggle. "We took it as far as we could, but I think our fundamental belief is that the law will be twisted if these groups are only complying with the law on the surface and coordinating with the parties with a wink and a nod," he says, expressing skepticism that the Federal Election Commission will provide adequate oversight.

At this phase in the campaign, before the Democrats have a nominee, the role of these new groups is greater than what it would have been for the Democratic Party at this point. Historically, the party would have been silent at this phase, since it does not have an incumbent in the White House.

So one of the many unknowns of the new system is how efforts to shape public opinion by outside actors will ultimately usurp, or compete with, the message-making of the party.

On the Democratic side, some potentially powerful 527 groups have come into being in the last year. The largest is America Coming Together, a coalition of labor unions, environmentalists, and feminists which hopes to raise $85 million.

Another group, also with labor-union activist support, called Voices for Working Families, aims to raise $20 million to bolster minority registration among minorities.

Activists have debated whether it makes sense to start airing ads so soon, with 11 months to go before the general election. But for the Moveon.org Voter Fund, now is a good time.

"The major reason to get out so early is the president and the GOP have significant funds that they're going to be spending, and we see our job as inoculating the American public against distortions that are likely to come," says Wes Boyd, co-ounder and president of Moveon.org, an online group that started to support President Clinton during his impeachment battle.

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