SCANDALS have driven top leaders from the House of Representatives, shamed the Senate, and rocked the savings and loan industry. Are American voters ready to fight back? Hal Daub hopes so. Mr. Daub, the Republican candidate for the United States Senate in Nebraska, is staking his race on two timely issues.
First, he refuses to accept one cent of campaign money from political action committees (PACs).
Second, he promises to quit the Senate after two terms (12 years) to give someone else an opportunity to serve.
President Bush, vowing to help, comes here June 8 to raise funds for Daub.
Daub's strategy against the special interests draws snickers from Washington sophisticates, who doubt that voters care very much about campaign purity.
Nebraska's newspapers also are skeptical. The Lincoln Star calls Daub's fuss over campaign money ``boring.'' The Fremont Tribune, noting that Daub took PAC money earlier when he was a congressman, calls his change of heart ``a postelection religious conversion.''
Daub's opponent, Sen. J. James Exon (D), is one of the top users of PAC money. But he denounces Daub's anti-PAC strategy as ``opportunist.'' He says Daub's turnabout on PAC money ``is just not ringing true.''
Senator Exon charges that Daub has ``been promised the money [from other sources], or he wouldn't have rejected PACs in the first place.''
Such criticism hasn't daunted Daub, who lashes out against special-interest money at every campaign stop - even while admitting he once accepted it. He contends there's nothing wrong with changing his ways.
``I quit smoking in 1981 because I thought it was harmful to my health. I quit taking PAC money ... because it's harmful to the American political process. Times have changed.''
Daub's PAC attack comes at a time when Congress feels especially sensitive about such money.
Critics, such as Rep. Jim Leach (R) of Iowa, blame special-interest campaign contributions for creating the S&L crisis likely to cost taxpayers $300 billion. The ``Keating Five,'' five senators who accepted contributions from an S&L official, are under investigation for possible ethics violations.
Nationwide, special-interest PACs donated $41.9 million to House candidates and $19.6 million to Senate candidates from Jan. 1, 1989, to March 31, 1990.
Exon is near the top of the list of PAC recipients. Overall, his campaign collected $1,387,131 in contributions through April 25, 1990. Of that, $845,832, or 64 percent, was PAC money, according to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
Jim Putnam, Daub's campaign manager, says that ``years ago, PACs started out as a very small percentage of contributions in a race. But it evolved into a corrupting influence.''
Putnam charges that Exon seems wedded to PAC cash.
``The average incumbent senator gets 26 to 28 percent of his money from PACs. Exon gets two-thirds. He's No. 1 in the nation [in percentage]. So I'd be real worried if I were him.''
FEC records show that in absolute terms, five other senators have collected more PAC dollars than Exon. They are Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, the leader; John D. Rockefeller IV (D) of West Virginia; Phil Gramm (R) of Texas; Carl Levin (D) of Michigan; and Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa.
However, all of those senators have accepted smaller percentages of their total funds from PACs. Senator Simon, for example, has gotten only 20 percent of his overall funding from PACs. Senator Rockefeller has received 44 percent from PACs, Senator Gramm, 12 percent, Senator Levin, 22 percent, and Senator Harkin, 30 percent.
Despite that, Charles Pallesen, chairman of the Exon campaign, rejects Daub's anti-PAC strategy as phony. He accuses Daub of accepting special-interest money through a Republican organization known as the Inner Circle.
The circle, created by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, accepts $1,000 contributions from individual donors. Those contributions are then divided among GOP candidates across the country.
``It's a case of tweedledee, tweedledum,'' says Mr. Pallesen. ``We don't think there's anything wrong with taking from PACs, or from the Inner Circle. But it's not right to take if you say you're not going to take.''
Pallesen charges that with the Inner Circle, ``Daub has found a loophole to funnel ... money ... into Nebraska.''
Wendy DeMocker, an official at the Republican senatorial committee, dismisses that argument ``as desperate and juvenile as anything I've ever heard.''
Ms. DeMocker points out that each $1,000 contribution is divided among dozens of candidates - reducing the possibility of influencing any candidate.
Charles Cook Jr., editor of the Cook Political Report, says that Inner Circle money is divvied into such small chunks that it's ``probably as clean as money like that can be.''
Mr. Cook says the major disadvantage of Inner Circle money is that it is all out-of-state. ``It's clean, but it's not home money,'' he says. ``It might be called, `Out-of-State, Anonymous.' ''
Ironically, Daub's ability to sell his anti-PAC campaign may depend on his skill at raising money. He spends hours every day, working the phones, selling tickets to fund-raisers.
Since entering the race in February, Daub has nearly matched Exon. The senator has raised $454,085 since Jan. 1. Daub has pulled in $375,927. Daub notes that almost all of his funds, some 97 percent, came from Nebraska. Putnam estimates Daub will need $2 million for a strong campaign.
In the end, money talks. Cook says one study found that if an incumbent can outspend his challenger by 25 percent, the incumbent usually wins. If the challenger can narrow that gap to 15 percent or less, the challenger usually wins. Between 15 and 25 percent, the race is a tossup.
That's why Daub knows he has to work those phones.