If Michael Dukakis emerges as the Democratic standard-bearer, he will face nearly $1 million that have been marshaled for media attacks on his candidacy - and not from George Bush. This is the amount that independent conservative groups having no official connection with the Bush campaign expect to spend during the general election to defeat the Democratic nominee. As soon as the conventions are over, ``You'll be hearing from us. We're not going to let Mike Dukakis get away with sounding like a conservative,'' says Brent Bozell III, executive director of the Conservative Victory Party, a conservative political action committee (PAC). ``We're planning [to spend] a half million to a million aimed at exposing his record as leftist.''
Mr. Bozell can assail the Dukakis record through what's known under federal election law as the ``independent expenditure.'' The federal statute says groups and individuals may make such expenditures to finance communication advocating defeat or election of a candidate as long as the expenditure is made without cooperation or consultation with the candidate or his campaign.
There is no ceiling on the amount such interests can spend, in contrast to the $1,000 limit on direct contributions to campaigns.
Margaret Nugent, a campaign-finance expert, says ``ideological PACs'' - committees that favor policies or philosophies usually identified as liberal or conservative - and the independent expenditure are a perfect marriage. These groups tend to have a national base formed through direct-mail solicitation.
Expenditures by such groups on negative advertising enable them to engage in ``mudslinging'' against political opponents while keeping their preferred candidates clean, Dr. Nugent says.
Independent expenditures totaled $13.7 million in the 1980 race to the White House. In 1984 such spending rose to nearly $17.5 million.
So far this year, independent groups have spent approximately $262,832 on behalf of presidential candidates and $62,801 against them, according to the latest figures from the Federal Election Commission.
Labor PACs don't make ``independent expenditures'' to the same extent as conservative groups. But they travel a different path to the same destination. Federal law allows unions to spend PAC funds to ``communicate'' with their members about the rank and file's political choices.
Labor PACs spent approximately $10 million in the prenomination process in 1984 and $20 million in the general election, says Herbert Alexander, director of the Citizens Research Foundation, which specializes in the study of political financing. He adds, ``Walter Mondale owed his nomination to labor.''
Says Bozell: ``Big labor has done this for years. They call it communicating with their members. What NCPAC did was make it a political tool of conservatives.''
NCPAC is the acronym for the National Conservative Political Action Committee, the granddaddy of conservative PACs, which is credited with playing a major role in gaining Republican control of the Senate in 1980. Bozell formerly worked for NCPAC.
Some experts believe that PACs use the specter of political bogymen feared by their constituents to raise vast amounts of funds - not all of which are used to defeat the purported targets. Nugent says that of the $10 million spent by NCPAC on behalf of President Reagan in 1984, less than 10 percent was spent on media advertising, polling, and other standard campaign activities, compared to 85 percent spent for direct mail-services and printing.
``Conservatives are particularly vulnerable to the charge'' of using the independent expenditure to boost their coffers for ``overhead and to retire debts instead of elect or get someone out of office,'' Nugent says.
Bozell says, however, that George McGovern and the late Frank Church would disagree with the Nugent thesis. ``Both of these men blamed their [1980 Senate] defeats on NCPAC.''
``If that's all we're doing [raising money], then why do all the liberal incumbents cry foul and make all sorts of charges about us getting into the races?'' he asks.
Bozell bristles at the charge that conservative PACs are just voracious money machines. He says NCPAC ended up losing a few million dollars in 1984 when conducting a voter registration drive that didn't pay for itself.
But another scholar in this area, who requested anonymity, says there's ``a lot of direct-mail preaching to the converted for the sake of breaking even.''
Nonetheless, he says, there is a lot of responsible use of the independent expenditure to make ``incumbents sweat'' and address issues that might otherwise fall by the wayside.