Two Sides of GOP Financial Coin

While congressional fund-raising hits record levels, Dole's campaign coffers run low

Were it simply a matter of comparing wallet width, Republicans would seem to hold a tremendous financial advantage over Democrats as the campaign season enters its final six months.

GOP fund-raising committees in the House and Senate are outpacing their Democratic counterparts by as much as 3 to 1, and Republican coffers are swelling with record infusions from political action committees. At the end of the first quarter of this year, the GOP had $30 million more than Democrats had to fund House races - a sum that will help them defend their majority.

But the cash at the congressional level may obscure larger GOP financial troubles - with important implications for the presidential race and fashioning a national message.

For even as congressional Republicans count their fortunes, the Republican National Committee faces an unprecedented problem. The party's nominee-in-waiting, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, is almost completely out of cash and is bumping up against spending limits in some key states. He will be largely dependent on party money between now and the August convention, funds that fall under strict federal campaign-finance rules. Contributions to the RNC, meanwhile, apparently tapered off in March as Mr. Dole coasted toward the nomination.

Nor are Democrats in poor financial shape. President Clinton, who faced no challenger for the nomination, has roughly $20 million in his war chest. And the Democratic National Committee is raising record soft-money contributions from trial lawyers, labor, and the entertainment industry.

Dole's finances are a serious problem for the party. The candidate lags 21 points behind Mr. Clinton, and polls show voters generally favoring Democrats by roughly 7 points. The party's image is closely linked to its nominee. Dole's inability to campaign vigorously is putting a growing strain on GOP unity. It may shortly be too late to close the gap before the party conventions, which is crucial to starting the fall general election at equal stride with Mr. Clinton.

"The next month is critical," says Michael Goldstein, an expert on campaign finance at the Washington program of the Claremont McKenna College in California. "The Republicans need to solve the fundamental conflict between the party and its candidate when they are facing a critical money shortage. Meanwhile, the Democrats are in excellent shape in the presidential race. And their fund-raising shows they are gaining momentum in the House and Senate races."

Not that the Republican fund-raising advantage is insignificant. The National Republican Congressional Committee, which maintains a war chest for GOP House members and GOP challengers, took in $15.7 million from January through March. Its counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, by comparison, received only $5.2 million.

After those totals were revealed, House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri called a closed-door meeting last week of Democrats on key financial panels in the House - the Ways and Means, Appropriations, and Commerce committees - to devise new fund-raising strategies.

Republicans are also bringing in large sums of money through other doors as well. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia added $750,000 to his coffers, swelling his campaign funds to $2.6 million. Many of the GOP freshmen have also been prolific fund-raisers. Rep. John Ensign (R) of Nevada, who has strong ties to the state's gambling industry, received $171,000 in campaign contributions in the first quarter.

But Professor Goldstein and other analysts caution that those totals don't tell the entire story. What may be more important, for example, is how much money each of the parties is raising compared with what they took in four years ago. Goldstein points out that total Democratic fund-raising is proportionately higher this year, when measured against 1992 levels, than are GOP contributions.

"Democrats rarely outpace Republicans in fund-raising, he says. "It suggests a growing strength of their apparatus."

RNC chairman Haley Barbour, for one, acknowledges a need for caution on his side. He said earlier this week that if the elections were held today, the Democrats were well poised to regain the House. His comment seemed to reflect more than just what current opinion polls suggest.

Mr. Barbour is a formidable fund-raiser. In his three years as chairman, he has added more than 600,000 mostly small donors to his lists. But he admits publicly that the party is still working vigorously to raise $120 million, a figure he estimates the RNC will need to fund a coordinated national effort in the Republican campaigns for Congress and the White House.

The RNC can make a legal contribution to the Dole campaign of $12 million. The sooner it does so, the better, say analysts. As Dole has slipped further behind Clinton, grumbling among the GOP rank and file has grown louder. House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich (R) of Ohio, for instance, said this week, "Some Republicans are frustrated and they're thinking Senator Dole should be doing a better job of articulating the message."

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