In a bold gambit intended to blunt criticism about past campaign-finance dealings, Vice President Al Gore is proposing a fundamental change in the way America finances its federal political races.
The plan centers on the establishment of a public-private "endowment," from which candidates for president and Congress would get disbursements - an idea that drew immediate criticism from GOP rival Gov. George W. Bush and others wary of more public funding of campaigns.
Still, analysts say the Gore plan could resonate with a public fed up with the role of special interests and big-money contributions. But the plan would no doubt be difficult to move through Congress - and would likely be challenged in court.
"The idea of the fund is a somewhat novel idea of introducing public finance without actually calling it that," says Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University and now at the Kennedy School of Government. "These kinds of proposals are useful and credible and do represent a substantial advantage over where we are now."
Mr. Gore is surmising that he can bury past questions about his integrity with a new offensive that seeks in particular to appeal to the crucial swing voters who will decide the fall election - including those who supported Sen. John McCain (R) and former Sen. Bill Bradley (D).
Gore, who announced the plan yesterday, promises that if elected, getting that plan through Congress would be his top priority. The plan's measures include:
*Establishing a $7.1 billion public-private Democracy Endowment that would fund congressional general-election campaigns, and eventually presidential campaigns as well.
*Banning the unlimited contributions to political parties known as "soft money."
*Strengthening the investigative powers of the Federal Elections Commission, which oversees the raising and spending of money in elections.
*Enhancing the disclosure requirements of lobbyists and their political contributions.
"This is a preemptive strike on the issue that is [Gore's] single biggest vulnerability," says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "Will it work? I really can't tell at this point."
Governor Bush, in a statement questioning his opponent's sincerity, said, "Unless the vice president stops withholding information about his own fund-raising excesses, the American people will question his commitment to reforming the fund-raising practices of others."
Gore is still trying to overcome images of his attendance at a fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple near Los Angeles four years ago, when illegal money was collected for the Democratic Party. Bush can also be expected to remind voters often of Gore's questionable fund-raising phone calls from the White House in 1996.
Bush, for his part, will have difficulty distancing himself from the aura of big money. His campaign, so far, is famous for having raised more than $70 million - a record - and for forgoing public money during the primaries.
Advocates of publicly financed campaigns welcome the Gore proposal, though some experts question whether a $7.1 billion endowment would be enough to pay for all the campaigns.
"The demands of money are constantly increasing, and $7 billion will soon turn into $10 billion, which will soon turn into $12 billion," says Herbert Alexander, a campaign-finance expert with the University of Southern California at Los Angeles. Plus, he adds, pre-nomination costs are often the highest costs of a campaign and the hardest to control. Gore's proposal is specific only to the general election.
Still, if enacted, Gore's plan would bring about "sweeping and fundamental reform," says Ellen Miller of Public Campaign, a nonpartisan organization focused on campaign-finance overhaul.
"The first impact would be an end to the corrupt system of unlimited soft-money contributions," Ms. Miller says. She estimates $500 million will flow through federal elections in 2000.
She says the second impact is longer term. The endowment "would create a way of funding congressional races as well as presidential elections with clean resources, as opposed to private special-influence money."
One question about the proposed endowment fund is whether people would donate to a political fund if they have no say over where the money goes.
"We don't know the answer to that," says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, another pro-public-finance group. "We know this is a creative effort to break the logjam.... It would call on Americans to help change the system, and provide tax incentives to do it. But there are no guarantees."
Roger Pilon of the Washington-based Cato Institute decries the Gore plan because "it perpetuates the myth that money corrupts, which is the foundation of this whole 'campaign-finance reform' juggernaut. It's very easy to argue corruption in general without showing corruption in particular."
"In so far as this leads to branding people outside the system as tainted, it should be rejected," he says.
* Staff writers Kris Axtman and Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society