Money becomes message of presidential race

Bush's financial success may overwhelm issues in GOP campaign long

The good news for Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush is his $36-million-and-growing war chest.

The bad news for presidential politics, say campaign reform advocates, is Governor Bush's $36-million-and-growing war chest.

The unprecedented millions raised by a politician untested by a national campaign make the Texas governor look more like a hot new stock offering than a first-time presidential contender a year and a half from election day.

Swelling bankrolls are buoying the Texas governor early. But campaign experts say the ability to amass such sums does not translate into sound ideas or firm leadership. In fact, they warn it may overwhelm the traditional primary-election process and render meaningless post-Watergate laws designed to keep the White House off the auction block.

"It shows the increasing role of money and its measure of success in politics," says Don Simon, acting president at Common Cause, a campaign watchdog organization in Washington.

"It's using money to shut down discussion, not enhance it. He's launched a preemptive nuclear strike obliterating the other candidates," Mr. Simon says.

Even some fellow conservatives are miffed over Bush's fast start.

Paul Weyrick of the Free Congress Foundation frets about the affect on the rest of the field. "Those of us who are discouraged that Bush is going to discourage others candidates ought to step forward," he says.

Indeed, like a summertime home run war, the breathtaking heights of Bush's fund-raising have overtaken his platform or his record.

"It's like turning on ESPN and they tell you McGwire or Sosa hit another home run," observes Paul Hendrie at the non-profit Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. "But it's a long time before they ever tell you the score of the game."

Next week is the reporting deadline set by the Federal Election Commission for candidates to disclose how much money they've raised, and the names of those donating more than $200. Bush advocates say the contributions are coming in in relatively small amounts.

"The most notable thing about the Bush campaign ... is the average contribution is less than $500," claims California Congressman and Bush supporter Christopher Cox.

As easy as the campaign money has been to collect, say supporters, there are still plenty of generous donors in reserve who want to see the GOP, and Bush, in power.

"Part of what we have is Republicans hungry and scared about losing the Senate and House majorities," says Bill Phillips, a fund-raiser for President Bush's 1992 reelection bid now at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "And they smell a winner in George W. Bush, so they are clamoring to get on board."

Supporters also attribute the Texas governor's success to wide support in Congress, the nation's Republican governors, and the fund-raising infrastructure left from his father's campaigns.

The Bush campaign has not officially announced whether it will accept matching federal funds available to eligible candidates.

Campaigns that accept matching funds face spending limits in both the primary races and general election. The system was designed to level the playing field by giving a leg up to candidates without fund-raising muscle.

But candidates who turn down federal funds do not subject themselves to spending limits, giving super-wealthy candidates an advantage.

"It means those who play by the system can't compete with someone who opts out of the system," argues Mr. Hendrie, pointing out Bush's 10-to-1 advantage over most candidates at present.

One person who's still trying is Sen. John McCain of Arizona, with campaign-finance reform as a core issue. The Vietnam war hero, who has raised $4 million for his campaign, is calling on fellow candidates to abide by spending limits. But he acknowledges it is unlikely they will do so.

"The whole intent of the law was to pre-vent ... what they may do," Senator McCain said of Bush and publishing magnate Steve Forbes this week.

Whether bound by limits or not, the huge stockpiles of campaign cash are used in the primary races and in general elections principally on television - lots of television.

In the 1996 primary race against former Sen. Bob Dole, Mr. Forbes exhausted the Dole campaign financially, leaving Mr. Dole vulnerable to Democratic ads in the general election.

Forbes has already been running television and radio ads for weeks.

"The air wars are going to be going on during the summer [of 2000], when the gentlemanly rules of politics before thought of it as bad taste," points out Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. in Colombia, Md. "Taste is out the window."

"The public resents the way it's spent on shiny, heavily packaged ads that represent a gross turn-off to politics," says Paul Taylor, Executive Director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns.

In the current primary scheduling, with many important ones bunched early the year, winners for each party could be determined as early as mid-March.

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