George W. Bush fired a shot across the bow of Arizona Sen. John McCain Thursday, a sign that the two top GOP candidates for president are finally going head-to-head. On Thursday McCain is set to make an unprecedented bipartisan campaign appearance in New Hampshire with Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley to call for a ban on so-called soft money. Bush's attack was timed both to twit the McCain campaign-finance plan and position himself as a reformer.
"To be effective and fair, a ban on contributions from corporations and labor unions must be accompanied by a law that says unions cannot spend union dues on political campaign, unless their individual workers give permission," Bush said in a press release Thursday.
But McCain spokesman Dan Schnur said the Bush statement was carefully worded to make Bush sound like a reformer, but that his plan was full of flaws. "John McCain has long supported paycheck protection, which would require unions to get their members to sign an agreement before spending their money on political causes. The only significant difference between George Bush and John McCain on this issue is that Gov. Bush would still allow the kind of unlimited soft-money donations from foreign nationals such as those who infiltrated the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign in 1996."
Schnur said Bush's plan would not limit soft-money contributions from individuals. "Until he's willing to take that last step, there's a loophole large enough to drive a Chinese tank through," he said of the Bush plan. Bush's staff did not return calls seeking comment. Supporters of his position have long pointed to Supreme Court decisions that call bans on individual contributions unconstitutional. In a debate last week, Bush also said that a voluntary Republican plan to forego soft-money contributions would hand the general election over to the Democrats.
The McCain campaign cited recent soft-money figures that show there is little Republican advantage in soft-money contributions. During the first six months of 1999, Republicans raised $66 million in so-called hard money -- $1,000 or smaller contributions from individuals -- while Democrats raised $38 million. In soft money -- money that goes to an organization such as a state or national party that does not fall under the existing campaign-reform laws, Republicans raised $29 million, while Democrats raised $24 million.
According to a Sept. 22 press release from the Federal Election Commission, the Democratic Party's soft-money funds are rising faster than the GOP's. Republicans still hold a small advantage in actual money raised, but that margin is diminishing. "Republicans raised $30.9 million in soft money for the first six months of this year, a 42 percent increase when compared to the first six months of the 1997-98 election cycle. Democrats raised $26.4 million, a 93 percent increase," the press release said.
"Bush says that a ban on soft money takes away the Republican Party's greatest weapon," Schnur said. "I'm not sure what the advantage is." But Schnur did say that by sending out the release, "the Bush campaign is acknowledging that campaign finance is a legitimate issue in this race. The fact that they're responding to us on the issue that's keyed John McCain's rise in New Hampshire is tremendously flattering."