Convoluted rules result in creative spending by candidates

By Sandra Sobieraj, Associated Press, 12/03/99

WASHINGTON -- A whopping $400,000 in reserved TV spots just before next month's Iowa caucuses catapults Bill Bradley toward the legal spending limit there.

For good measure, the presidential candidate who's made campaign finance reform a central tenet of his campaign, also placed a $55,000 marker for ad time on nearby Illinois TV -- a way of reaching Iowa viewers without counting fully towards Iowa limits.

The airtime orders that Bradley placed Thursday underscore the creativity of candidates who accept federal matching funds and then are bound by convoluted spending rules.

Although the money is not spent until the ads actually air, Bradley's orders at five Iowa TV stations brought his advertising costs in the state to around $880,000 -- just shy of the $1.1 million spending limit even before travel, staff and other campaigning expenses are factored in.

"We expect to compete well in Iowa with the caps in mind -- on an organizational level, on a media level, on a caucus-preparation level," Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser said.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, another campaign finance reform champion, is using time-tested tactics to try to compete with the hefty warchests of Gov. George W. Bush and Steve Forbes, both of whom declined federal funds and can spend as much as they want.

To date, the Texas governor has reported raising $57 million. Forbes, a millionaire publisher, has reported raising only $4 million, but in 1996 he ended up contributing $37.5 million of the $41.7 million he spent on his first presidential campaign.

McCain is not competing in Iowa. But he is fighting back in New Hampshire, making full use of provisions in the law that campaign finance experts say make a farce of the $660,000 federal spending cap in the state by allowing candidates to spend up to $6 million there.

Among the techniques allowed under Federal Election Commission law:

  • Claiming that any expense in New Hampshire is for "fund raising," which immediately allows candidates to count only half of the expense against the state's $660,000 limit.

    Candidates can do so even if the spending has nothing to do with licking envelopes and seeking contributions, up to a maximum deduction of $6.5 million during the primary campaign.

  • Airing television ads on Boston stations that reach into vote-rich southern New Hampshire, yet applying only a fraction of that spending to the New Hampshire limit.

    A $100,000 ad buy in Boston, for example, counts as only $16,800 in New Hampshire spending, since TV ratings show that only 16.8 percent of the Boston-area audience lives in New Hampshire.

    In the past three weeks, Bradley has bought $550,000 worth of time on Boston TV stations, while spending just $178,000 in New Hampshire. His rival for the Democratic nomination, Vice President Al Gore, has spent $285,000 for television time in New Hampshire but nothing yet in Boston.

    Gore also is expected to divert some ads through Boston and Illinois.

  • In a twist, McCain also is expected to account for some of the television ads he runs on New Hampshire's main television station as if they were intended for viewers in Massachusetts.

    Massachusetts doesn't hold its primary until March 7, more than a month after New Hampshire's Feb. 1 primary. But such accounting would allow the candidate to charge about 80 percent of the ads' cost against the $2.5 million limit in Massachusetts -- nearly four times that of New Hampshire.

    McCain officials refused to discuss specifics Thursday, referring a reporter to a campaign finance report due to be filed with the FEC on Jan. 31.

    "We will disclose what we're spending everywhere when we file our report," said McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky. "It will be available at that time, but we're following the letter of the law in all of our expenditures."

Candidates go to such extremes because Iowa and New Hampshire vote first, and the outcomes usually set a trend for subsequent primaries, experts say.

Gore spokesman Chris Lehane seized on Bradley's new ad orders as evidence that Bradley is "putting a lot on the line in those two states and recognizes the fact that for his campaign to go beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, he needs to win Iowa and New Hampshire."

While McCain is among those using rules that give one appearance but allow another type of behavior, even some of his opponents are willing to give him a pass.

"It's a cute news story and it does raise the question of double standards, but it also raises a question about the current system," said Bill Dal Col, campaign manager for Steve Forbes.

Dal Col said the techniques used by those taking the money showed why the entire presidential election financing system should be scrapped.

"Lift the caps, go to full reporting, and let people contribute what they want," he said. "The voters can decide who, if anybody, sold their soul."

(Associated Press Writer Glen Johnson contributed to this report.)