Attack ad says McCain's 'soft money' legislation hurts GOP

Candidate's aides suspect Bush behind TV commercial

By Jill Zuckman, Globe Staff, 12/24/1999

elcome to the front of the pack, Senator McCain.

Just two days after Governor George W. Bush of Texas said he would begin sharpening his differences with Senator John McCain of Arizona, a conservative activist group has launched a scathing television advertising campaign in New Hampshire that charges McCain with hurting Republicans and the conservative movement.

The commercial lambastes McCain for helping ''labor unions, trial lawyers, and pro-abortion groups'' with his campaign finance legislation, and pictures the face of the senator morphing into President Clinton's. The antitax group spent $100,000 on a three-week advertising campaign that began Wednesday night on WMUR-TV, said Grover Norquist, president of the Washington-based organization.

''He's the only Republican candidate approved by the liberal New York Times,'' the announcer in the ad intones. ''Bill Clinton, Al Gore and big labor all endorse his top legislative priority. Senator John McCain - helping Democrats pass a campaign finance bill that would keep the Republican Party from fighting the liberal national media.''

McCain's bill, cosponsored by Senator Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, would ban unlimited ''soft money'' contributions to political parties.

Norquist said he had no contact with the Bush campaign and paid for the advertising with money collected from his 90,000 members. Though he has praised Bush for his tax plan, Norquist said he has not endorsed any candidate for president.

Norquist said, ''We will stop the ads as soon as McCain stops trashing the First Amendment and withdraws his support from Feingold's legislation that would be so damaging to the conservatives.''

The attack ad immediately raised suspicions among campaign officials for McCain and Steve Forbes that Bush was using an intermediary to do battle on his behalf. It was only a few weeks ago that a group called the Republican Leadership Council - which has numerous ties to Bush - paid for a television ad warning Forbes against running negative commercials, even though Forbes had not done so.

''If Governor Bush has anything nasty to say about John McCain, he should step up and say it himself,'' said Bill dal Col, Forbes's campaign manager. ''He shouldn't hide behind third-party groups.''

Dal Col, who called for Norquist to pull the ad off the air, said it was particularly outrageous to blend McCain's likeness with Clinton's: ''Anyone who would dare show John McCain morphing into Bill Clinton had better look into the mirror. The evil they see is themselves.''

Steve Duprey, the New Hampshire Republican chairman, said he does not believe Bush had anything to do with the ad. But he, too, said he was outraged by the suggestion that McCain is anything like Clinton.

''For them to engage in this kind of negative, nasty, and distorted and unfair advertising is a disgrace to the New Hampshire primary,'' Duprey said.

McCain officials yesterday would not directly point the finger at the Bush campaign. But Peter Spaulding, McCain's New Hampshire chairman, said, ''The real question is, who is paying for these ads? Norquist should release the names of his contributors and tell the American people who is really behind this attack.''

In Austin, Texas, spokesman Ari Fleischer said the Bush campaign had nothing to do with the new television spot.

''I think there's a very heavy burden on anybody who would make such a suggestion to back it up with proof,'' Fleischer said. ''Governor Bush has been the victim of many such independent negative attack ads and he hasn't complained. It's part of being a front-runner.''

Indeed, the Sierra Club has been running a television ad in New Hampshire that excoriates Bush for his handling of the environment in Texas.

Yet it is McCain's dedication to overhauling the campaign finance system and eliminating ''soft money'' donations that has been a source of the unbridled animus some have felt toward him for years.

The subject came up again last week at McCain's town hall meeting in Claremont, N.H. with Bill Bradley, the former Democratic senator from New Jersey who is also running for president. A member of the New Hampshire Citizens for Life told McCain that his bill would hurt his group's ability to communicate its views to voters. McCain told the man that he had delivered ''a very clever misrepresentation of my position.''

Yesterday, Norquist said in an interview that conservatives are upset with McCain for not including in his bill so-called ''paycheck protection,'' which would allow union members to block their dues from being used for political purposes.

While McCain favors that idea, he dropped the provision in order to win Democratic support for the overall ban on soft money. On Monday in Manchester, Bush told the Globe that McCain's legislation would hurt the Republican party by leaving labor unions free to contribute to Democratic causes.

''Is that the kind of leadership you want?'' Bush asked. ''I can't imagine, `Elect me, I'm the kind of leader willing to hurt the party.'''

Bush also said in the interview that he planned to spend the month of January letting voters know that he has differences with McCain on campaign finance, taxes and education. Yesterday, a new poll by the American Research Group showed McCain leading Bush in New Hampshire by 39 to 30 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

In response to Bush's criticism, McCain said this week that Bush doesn't realize that it is more important to eliminate soft money donations from labor unions, corporations and individuals than to insist on the paycheck protection act. (Bush says he would allow individuals to continue giving soft money to the Democratic and Republican parties.)

Meanwhile, McCain officials were pointing to the latest attack on their candidate as more proof of his virtue.

''You can judge a man not only by his friends, but also by his enemies,'' said Spaulding, the New Hampshire chairman. ''It is clear that John McCain has upset the lobbyists and status quo establishment in Washington with his calls to clean up our political system. The fat cats may be against him, but here in New Hampshire, John has the people on his side.''