WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- At a fund-raiser nearly two years ago, President Clinton told wealthy Democratic contributors that he would spend "every waking moment" of the rest of the year raising large sums of unregulated political donations known as "soft money."
At that Dec. 7, 1995, lunch, captured on White House videotape, Clinton urged the donors to contribute more money so that his party could afford to run television ads blaming Republicans for the impasse over the budget that had shut down part of the government.
"It's absolutely imperative to run more ads before Christmas," he told the group. "We have been running these ads -- about $1 million a week -- to shape the debate. I cannot overstate to you the impact these paid ads have had in the places they have run."
Generally, soft money is supposed to be used solely for "party building" activities; the law bars the use of such money to directly help elect a candidate. Republicans have maintained since the release this week of the videotapes of the fund-raisers that Clinton skirted this law by airing ads for the express purpose of bolstering his own re-election.
But the Dec. 7 videotape seems to show that Clinton found a way of melding those two goals -- helping the Democratic Party and ensuring his own re-election -- into a single purpose.
At one point, he appears to be talking about the party's standing in public opinion -- an entirely legal use for soft money:
"If they shut the government down, we have to be able to run more ads [to say] it was not our fault. [The ads] are a pivotal part of winning this debate so people can choose our future over theirs."
Moments earlier, however, Clinton explained that the ads that praised Clinton and criticized Republicans, particularly House Speaker Newt Gingrich and then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, were targeted to key battleground states, not to Democratic states he expected to carry easily in the 1996 election.
"We're not running these ads in Massachusetts or New York City," the president said in reference to two Democratic strongholds. "We're not running these ads where there's a lay-down."
In such remarks, the president appears to promote a vision in which his party's future and his own political fortunes are one and the same.
Republican Sen. Arlen Specter insisted this week that Clinton's comments were tantamount to an admission that his party had (( violated the law on soft money -- and the pledge that presidential candidates take when they accept federal matching money.
Lanny J. Davis, a White House counsel, strenuously disagreed last night, saying bluntly that Specter "doesn't know what he's talking about."
Davis maintained that Specter has confused the Federal Elections Commission's defined limits on ads paid for by independent groups, such as a labor union, with less stringent restrictions on political parties.
"Senator Specter simply doesn't know the law," Davis said. "The only test in the law is you can't say, 'Elect So-and-So.' Or 'Defeat So-and-So.' "
Clinton's comments at this fund-raiser are not his most explicit that have yet come to light.
A tape shown Wednesday captures Clinton flatly crediting the soft-money ads for his standing in the polls. But his remarks at the fund-raiser offer a behind-the-scenes look into how deeply Clinton had personally studied the value that soft money could provide to him and his party.
"My original strategy had been to raise all the money for my campaign this year, so I could spend all my time next year being president, running for president and raising money for the Senate committee, the House committee and the Democratic Party," he said.
"And then we realized we could run these ads through the Democratic Party, which meant we could raise money in 20- , 50- and 100-thousand dollar blocks, and we didn't have to do it in $1,000 [increments]," he said.
Clinton expresses bitterness at conservative groups and commentators who have been critical of him, complaining that paid ads are his most effective weapon.
"We don't have the mailing list of the Christian Coalition or the National Rifle Association," he says. "We don't have Rush Limbaugh. We've had no other mechanism to shop our message."
Pub Date: 10/18/97