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The presidential money game Spending: Taxpayers will spend $61,820,000 on each of the major presidential campaigns this year. But it's only the tip of the iceberg.

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Money. It's the high-octane stuff that runs American politics, and in this election year the largest sums are fueling the presidential contest. Indeed, President Clinton and Bob Dole have already spent more than $50 million, and there's still a half year to go.

"Follow the money" remains good advice for those wanting to know what's happening in politics. But few things are harder to comprehend than campaign finance.

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Ever since reforms were put in place in the mid-1970s in response to the Watergate scandal, the rules and regulations of campaign money have grown to resemble the tax code both in volume and fiendish complexity.

Paul West of The Sun's national staff offers a primer to make sense of the money game -- a competition that has already influenced the shape of the presidential election in potentially important ways.

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OK, so it looks like the race for the White House will be between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. How much can they spend?

By law, $61,820,000. Each will get a government check for that amount, after he is formally nominated by his party in August.

Where does the money come from?

From you. The presidential race is the only campaign that is paid for by the nation's taxpayers. The voluntary $3 checkoff at the top of your income tax return provides the money. A smaller proportion of the taxpaying public is checking that box, which may say something about America's regard for politics these days.

So $61 million is all the candidates will spend?

Well, no. Consider it like the tip of an iceberg.

Besides the money that goes directly to the candidates, the taxpayers give each party $12,364,000 for its national convention. But since the nominations have already been decided, those affairs will be little more than four-day commercials for the nominees.

Is that what a convention costs? $12 million?

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The true figure may be triple that. Host committees have been set up in San Diego (for the Republicans) and Chicago (for the Democrats) to raise money for the conventions.

Corporations -- which can't legally contribute directly to candidates -- are picking up a large chunk of the tab for both conventions.

What about contributions by individuals to the presidential candidates?

Contributions from individuals -- limited to $1,000 per person -- must be disclosed. But no contributions are allowed in the general election campaign, which is federally funded.

There is one exception: Each party can raise and spend $12 million on its nominee's campaign.

But what about all those contributions I've been hearing about to Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole?

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Those contributions were for the primary season, which lasts until the national conventions. They include about $10 million to $12 million in taxpayer money, known as federal matching funds. The taxpayers kicked in $1 for each dollar the candidates raised in private donations, up to a $250 limit for each donation.

By accepting that money, the candidates accepted an overall spending limit for the primary season of about $42 million.

Let's see: $42 million for the primaries, $12 million for the conventions, $61 million for the fall campaign, $12 million from the parties. That means, between them, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole will have spent more than $250 million by Election Day.

Yes, and that doesn't count everything Senate and House candidates will spend -- perhaps $700 million in all -- money which could have an impact on who comes out to vote in the presidential contest.

If Ross Perot enters the president race, how much can he spend?

As much as he wants. There's no limit on how much of his own money a candidate can spend on his own campaign. In 1992, Mr. Perot spent more than $60 million.

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In theory, that gives the rich a big advantage over other candidates. But in practice, that may not be true.

In the 1994 congressional elections, for example, a total of 94 wealthy candidates spent $100,000 or more on their own campaigns; only 15 won. And don't forget Steve Forbes, who spent more than $33 million on his losing try for the Republican nomination.

But didn't the Forbes money have a big impact on the race?

Yes. It forced Mr. Dole to spend money faster than he wanted. His campaign has nearly reached the overall spending limit for the primaries. Since Mr. Clinton didn't have a primary opponent, he saved his money. Now he's free to use it to air campaign commercials promoting himself or bashing Mr. Dole. At the moment, the president has something like $20 million left to spend, while Mr. Dole has under $2 million.

Suppose I'm a fat cat who wants to help his candidate. Since Mr. Dole and Mr. Clinton have already accepted the limit in donations to their campaigns, is there anything I can do?

You can give up to $25,000 directly to your candidate's political party. And if you want to give more, there are always the soft money accounts.

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Soft money?

Any contribution not covered by federal campaign laws. There's no limit on the amount of soft money that may be given, and donations of more than $1 million are not uncommon.

The donors include those who are barred from giving directly to presidential candidates -- such as corporations, labor unions and other special interests.

Where does this soft money go, and how is it used?

It goes to political parties on the national and state levels. It is supposed to be used only for building the party and supporting its activities -- get-out-the-vote drives, bumper stickers and yard signs, as well as activities that jointly benefit the party's candidates on the local, state and national level.

In practice, soft money has become a roundabout way of subsidizing campaigns for president and for Congress, particularly in the battleground states where national elections are won and lost.

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The Republicans and Democrats are talking about raising in excess of $120 million each to support their candidates, much of it in so-called soft dollars.

But the parties tend to exaggerate their soft money goals, according to Joshua Goldstein of the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group. He predicts soft money donations will amount to about $50 million for each party.

Any other loopholes?

Absolutely. The hottest one at the moment involves independent expenditures by individuals and groups, including special interests. They're already running TV ads criticizing the presidential candidates for their stands on a variety of issues.

As long as those doing the spending are truly independent of the candidate and his campaign, there is no limit on the amount that can be spent. And if the spending is deemed to be issue-oriented -- such as a coordinated ad campaign that recently aired, which accuses Mr. Clinton of doing the bidding of the nation's trial lawyers -- the donor and amounts don't have to be disclosed, either.

Democrats claim the recent business-financed ads, which criticized Mr. Clinton's stand against limiting damage awards in product liability lawsuits, are a backdoor way of helping the cash-starved Dole campaign. Republicans say a $35 million ad blitz by organized labor is doing the same for Mr. Clinton and the Democrats.

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Pub Date: 5/03/96


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