When big money becomes a liability

Some analysts believe Bush's campaign warchest could hurt his image

Can a candidate for office have too much money?

Democratic presidential challenger Bill Bradley says so, and he predicts that Texas Gov. George W. Bush - who has raised a record-smashing $60 million-plus so far - will discover the same thing as he battles for the Republican presidential nomination.

But the answer to this nearly metaphysical question is much more nuanced than a mere yes or no.

Literally speaking, say political analysts, a politician can't have too much money. The cost of campaigning has skyrocketed in recent years, with television ads getting more expensive and necessary, political consultants commanding ever-larger paychecks, and the need for early, on-the-ground organizing simultaneously in many states more crucial than ever.

This campaign's compressed primary schedule has made the need for early and big money imperative. One of Republican Sen. John McCain's biggest drawbacks in his upstart challenge to Governor Bush is that he is organized in only six states; Bush has headquarters in 13 states. Even if the Arizona senator does well in the early New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, he faces a dearth of organization in many of the subsequent contests.

Still, some pitfalls are associated with big-time fund-raising, and in important ways, Bush is a victim of his own success.

"All his money lulled him into overconfidence," says political analyst Bill Schneider. "He didn't go into New Hampshire soon enough, he wasn't scrappy enough. At one point he said he wouldn't debate until January, which was crazy."

This perceived overconfidence could, in the end, contribute to a defeat in the New Hampshire primary - a blow that would not be likely to derail Bush's campaign but that certainly isn't the game plan the Republican establishment had in mind when it threw its collective clout behind the Texas governor.

Making way for McCain

Ironically, Bush's big fund-raising cleared the way for Senator McCain to rise to the top and make the GOP nomination battle a two-man race. Many of Bush's challengers quit the race early, saying Bush had frozen them out of the money race. By dropping out well before the first caucus and primary, candidates like Elizabeth Dole, Dan Quayle, and Lamar Alexander opened the path for McCain.

McCain's own fund-raising in the early going was adequate but not spectacular. His saving grace was that he was able to transfer $2 million from his Senate campaign coffers into his presidential account, a luxury that most others haven't had. All told, including federal matching funds, McCain has had about $20 million at his disposal.

How the public perceives all of Bush's money is also risky territory for the governor. Larry Sabato, an expert on campaign finance at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, says the public pays no attention to the specific amounts of money the candidates have raised. "Numbers almost always cause the American public's collective eyes to glaze over."

But Bill Schneider, who has traveled widely around the country during the campaign, reports that the public is increasingly suspicious of Bush's big money. "I've heard a lot of people say about Bush, 'Who's giving him that money, and what do they want for it?' "

Ari Fleischer, a Bush campaign spokesman, has a ready answer to that charge: The campaign has raised its money in small increments, by the rules, from tens of thousands of contributors - more than 170,000, he says, "more than every man, woman, and child in Manchester and Nashua, [N.H.]."

Analysts aren't so sure the public will hear that argument. The issue isn't the money but what Bush does with it. And, says independent New Hampshire pollster Dick Bennett, "Bush needs to speak to New Hampshire voters. Basically, he's been running a national campaign and talking about national issues. But it's not too late to change."

Indeed, the Bush campaign has changed its marketing strategy in New Hampshire. Slick is out. "Real-time ads" are in. Footage shot with a hand-held video camcorder in the morning can be ready for air by evening, in a technique that's meant to give the campaign a sense of you-are-there immediacy. These ads, also called "crash ads," will air almost daily beginning in January, says Bush media director Mark McKinnon.

Financial road to ruin?

In the Democratic race, the dynamic over money is somewhat different. Mr. Bradley and Vice President Al Gore have raised a similar (and not extravagant) amount of money. Still, Mr. Gore spent lavishly on staff, consultants, and fancy headquarters, and appeared headed for financial ruin before changing tack.

"He was trying to hire away any possible resource any challenger could be in a position to hire," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "That proved to be a mistake."

Bradley, for his part, has made campaign-finance overhaul a signature issue in his own way - which may help to explain why he said last week on "Meet the Press" that "I discovered that you can have too much money in a political campaign." When Bradley ran for reelection to the US Senate in 1990, he raised about $12 million - and still nearly lost the race to challenger Christine Todd Whitman.

But it wasn't his big fund-raising that nearly did him in, says Professor Baker. It was his unwillingness to repudiate former Gov. Jim Florio's tax increase.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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