Dole Presidential Campaign Is Now Running on Empty


Were it a bowling team, the Dole campaign wouldn't have enough money for embroidered jerseys.

Translated onto the budget sheet of presidential ambition, that means this: With only $177,000 in the till, Sen. Bob Dole's campaign is broke. Candidates often spend twice that amount just at the convention.

At the same time, his capacity to raise new funds is limited. The Dole organization is less than $1 million shy of the limit on what a candidate may spend prior to the general election, according to statements filed with the Federal Election Commission. And in 22 days, Mr. Dole loses another asset - his Senate staff.

No nominee-in-waiting has ever been in such tight financial straits so early. But despite its empty coffers, his campaign has begun rapidly filling the Republican senator's schedule since he announced his resignation from Congress last week. The candidate plans some 17 trips before July 4. His wife, Elizabeth, has her own campaign itinerary.

Who's going to pay for this travel? The campaign plans to sell off some of its computer and telephone systems, a standard practice at this stage of an election. Traveling press and Secret Service pay for jet fuel. And there are ways around the spending restrictions. The Republican Party, at both the state and federal level, can spend money in ways that benefit the candidate now, even though it can't legally spend money on Dole's behalf until he is nominated. Furthermore, there is little risk in exceeding spending caps, since the FEC doesn't audit campaigns until after the election is over.

"There's no question Dole has a serious problem," says Herbert Alexander, a University of Southern California campaign finance expert. "But candidates exceed the limits every four years. They can get around them. The fact is, candidates spend what they can spend."

Presidential candidates who chose to use public funds this year were allowed a maximum of $37 million from the time they entered the race until the general election. The compacted primary season forced Dole to spend faster than candidates have in previous years, so he is close to the limit. FEC reports show he spent $35 million through March. The campaign's latest report to the FEC indicates it spent $1.5 million more in April. That means Dole can spend only $500,000 more between now and Aug. 15, when the GOP convention ends.

THE Republican National Committee can't legally keep Dole afloat, not directly. But the rules governing campaign spending are easily bent when a party's nominee is not yet official. Once the convention is over, the RNC will be able to spend $12 million in coordinated expenditures on behalf of the Dole campaign. In the meantime, there are a number of ways the party can help Dole spread his message, such as:

*Travel to party fund-raising. Both the state and national party can pay Dole's expenses to have him appear at fund-raising, "as long as the event is a bona fide party event" for the purpose of "party building," according to FEC regulations. Such events cannot be organized around the candidate, nor may the candidate make remarks that are "for the purpose of influencing the candidate's nomination or election."

There's a pretty high fudge factor here, notes Professor Alexander: "Obviously, once a candidate is assured of the nomination, his views and strategies point toward November." The candidate's message, in other words, is the party's message. What Dole, President Clinton, their wives, or their running mates say at party fund-raising is tangential to their campaigns. Furthermore, nothing says a candidate can't make campaign appearances while in town.

*Political advertisements. Starting over the weekend and running up to the convention, the RNC will spend $20 million on TV ads attacking Mr. Clinton's record. The spots can't mention Dole directly, but they nonetheless can spread his message. The Democrats are following a similar strategy.

"General ads for party building, which boost the issues, not the candidates, are acceptable," says Sharon Snyder, a spokeswoman for the FEC. "And there are other avenues for spending, such as soft money. As long as it's not election-advocacy spending."

Judging where to draw the line between legal and illegal spending is difficult and the penalties for violation provide little deterrent. The penalty is a maximum fine worth the amount spent in excess of the cap.

Candidates exceed spending caps in every election cycle, mostly with impunity. That's because the FEC does not investigate complaints until after the election is over. The Clinton campaign estimates Dole has already spent about $350,000 over the limits. By the time the FEC tally is official, he'll either be living on Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington or Maple St. in Russell, Kan.

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