Fundraising season opens, with a difference

With gala tonight, coffers start clanging - but soft-money bans change the tune.

The cherry blossoms were late to bloom this year in Washington, but fundraising season is starting right on time. Tonight, the President and Laura Bush will headline the annual Republican House-Senate gala, aimed at raising between $10 million and $12 million for the party's congressional campaign committees.

For Mr. Bush, this event - combined with his filing of election papers last Friday, so he can start raising money for his campaign - signals the full reemergence of politics in daily life. His challenge will be to appear above the fray, even as he rakes in the big bucks.

The fundraising demands are fierce. In the last presidential election, the Bush campaign smashed records by pulling in more than $100 million. And in 2002, when Bush was technically not on the ballot, he helped his party's candidates by pulling in a record $141 million. For 2004, his goal is to bring in at least $170 million for his campaign, but the figure could go far higher. "We're heading for the next round of superlatives and records," says Larry Sabato, a campaign-finance expert at the University of Virginia.

Bush is not the only rock star in the Republican galaxy. Vice President Cheney will also maintain a heavy fundraising schedule, as will Bush political master Karl Rove and White House Chief of Staff Andy Card. In recent weeks, Mr. Rove has appeared at fundraisers for Republicans from Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, and West Virginia, helping net hundreds of thousands of dollars for candidates or, in the case of Illinois, the state GOP.

Complicating political life are the shifting rules of engagement for fundraising. For now, the law of the land is again the McCain-Feingold law, which bans so-called soft money - unlimited donations to parties - and restricts issue ads. The law, which took effect last Nov. 6, was found partially unconstitutional May 2 and now awaits Supreme Court action, which may be months away.

On Monday, the three-judge federal panel that acted on May 2 suspended its ruling, so that candidates in this cycle would not have to operate under a succession of three different fundraising systems. Thus the ban on soft money is firmly back, for now (though neither party had declared plans for raising it again).

The soft-money prohibition means that tonight's fundraiser is likely to bring in less than half of last year's events, when the take was $30 million at each of two galas. Under McCain-Feingold, national parties may accept only "hard money" contributions from people and political-action committees, with a limit of $25,000.

For several weeks, House and Senate members have been dialing for dollars (away from their offices, by law) and selling tickets to the dinner - for $2,500 apiece. Each member is expected to raise at least $25,000.

Despite the new challenges in raising funds legally, observers of the campaign-finance system do not expect a decrease in the role of money in politics. Larry Noble, former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), refers to the creation by both major parties of new fundraising groups designed to avoid the soft-money ban. The groups formed after the FEC issued rules last summer implementing McCain-Feingold - rules that supporters of campaign reform found too lenient. These new groups are not allowed to coordinate their activities with party committees.

"People associated with the party committees will suggest to donors that they may want to contribute to these groups," says Mr. Noble, now executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "The question will be: When does the line get crossed?"

The Democrats, of course, face the same challenges as Republicans - raising as much money as possible without seeming captive to donors - but their challenge is more difficult. Soft money was more critical to their fundraising repertoire than it was to the Republicans', and Republicans, who count more wealthy donors in their ranks, are seen as better able to take advantage of the increased limits on hard-money donations to individual candidates - up from $1,000 to $2,000.

In addition, by controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, the Republicans can build on the power of incumbency. Until election day, every trip Bush takes will increasingly be seen and planned through the lens of politics, even if it contains official presidential components.

No doubt mindful of how Vice President Gore got slapped for questionable fundraising appearances in 1996, Vice President Cheney - who, as Gore did, will play a crucial role in fundraising - must gauge propriety with every step. Democrats, such as Henry Waxman of California, the top member of his party on the House Government Reform Committee, will raise Cheney's corporate connections - including those to his old firm, Halliburton, which is under investigation by the SEC - early and often.

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