WASHINGTON -- The backdrop was familiar: rapt faces -- old and young -- listening intently in Florida as Vice President Al Gore slammed his Republican rival and pledged to secure Social Security and Medicare.
But the event at Delray Beach's Old School Square gymnasium April 7 was a first, a "platform forum" sponsored by the Democratic Party and underwritten with about $10,000 from party coffers in what amounts to a new use of hard and unregulated soft money to support a presidential campaign.
The Democratic National Committee plans to spend as much as $100,000 criss-crossing the country to hold forums designed to get voter input for the platform on which Gore will run for the White House.
Of that total, about $65,000 will come from federally regulated hard money raised directly to aid Gore's candidacy. About $35,000 will come from soft money.
No one has suggested the plans violate elastic campaign finance laws, and Democratic Party officials are proud of what they say is an unprecedented opening up of the platform-making process.
"This is grass-roots democracy at its best," said Jennifer Backus, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. "This is what parties should do."
The Republican Party is poised to launch a similar effort to bolster its likely presidential nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Republican National Committee spokesman Mike Collins declined to condemn the DNC's actions, saying the GOP has "not decided to do anything similar -- yet."
But to campaign finance watchdogs, the Democrats' party forums sound like yet another way to push the limits on the use of soft money, which can be raised in unlimited quantities. Traditionally, campaign events are funded with hard money, which is more difficult to raise because donors are limited to $1,000 contributions.
"If something looks like a Gore campaign event, then it ought to be paid for like a Gore campaign event, which means it ought to be paid for with their own hard money," said Don Simon, general counsel for Common Cause, a leading advocate of campaign finance reform.
The money is a relative pittance in an era when the Democratic and Republican parties spend tens of millions of soft money dollars on "issue advertising" that stops just short of calling for the victory or defeat of a particular candidate. That would mean the ad had to be paid for with hard money.
But the Democrats' forums still jump out as a novel way for Gore to extend his cash-strapped campaign through the lean summer months, before the vice president receives federal funding for his general election effort.
Gore held his final fund-raiser of the 2000 campaign this weekend, a $150,000 event that raised his primary fund-raising haul to $33 million. That total is the maximum Gore could raise and still qualify for federal matching funds for the primary season.
But most of that money has already been spent. In contrast, Bush can raise as much money as he wants because he decided against accepting matching funds.
Gore campaign officials have been scrambling for ways to keep up. To cut costs to the campaign, they have piggy-backed campaign appearances on official vice presidential business that is funded by the taxpayer. The vice president has been allowed to issue White House policy decisions, thus garnering attention that might have otherwise gone to President Clinton.
With the platform meetings, the DNC might have found another money saver for Gore, one that will cost the taxpayer nothing.
In Delray Beach, DNC National Chairman Joe Andrew did differentiate the event from ordinary campaign stops, dwelling at length on the need for grass-roots input as the party fashions its platform before the August Democratic convention. He even unveiled a Web site to take suggestions online.
But once Gore took the stage before 150 mainly elderly voters, such "party building" talk was drowned out by old-fashioned politics, as the vice president slammed Bush's plans to "devastate Social Security and devastate the American economy as well."
Such red-meat rhetoric might sound more like campaigning than eliciting input for a party platform, but Backus insisted the event was designed to open up a platform process that traditionally has been held behind closed doors.
In 1992, the party changed its rules to allow its platform committee to supplement its traditional meetings with forums and open panels.
But no such events were held in the 1992 or the 1996 presidential campaign.
Backus said there was no need to hold such events in 1996 because Clinton, the party's nominee, was an incumbent president with established positions on the issues. This year, she said, the party has more of a need to pull potential voters into the process.
"We think we're going to win the election based on grass-roots outreach and issues, and we think this highlights that," she said.
But others are skeptical. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have mingled their party expenditures with their candidates' expenditures, blurring the line between soft money and strictly controlled hard money.
Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance watchdog group Democracy 21, said the parties and the candidates already share the costs of advertising and political consultants.
"Both parties, in effect, starting with the '96 campaigns, have used party soft money to finance their campaigns," Wertheimer said. "This sounds like just a new variation on a much larger theme."