Foes of McCain's plan head for N.H.

Campaign finance overhaul opposed

By Jill Zuckman, Globe Staff, 09/20/99

ASHINGTON - A group of conservative Washington lobbyists will descend on the New Hampshire State House today to denounce Arizona Senator John McCain and his quest to overhaul the nation's campaign-finance system.

Spearheaded by Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a friend of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the group will hold a similar event tomorrow in South Carolina.

Norquist has condemned McCain's legislation as ''phony,'' a ''trick and a trap,'' and ''designed to limit citizen participation in the political process.''

McCain, a Republican candidate for president, has campaigned intensively in New Hampshire and South Carolina, presenting himself as an independent voice for reform of the political system, and placing his campaign finance ideas at the fore of his presidential bid. He regularly calls the current system ''an elaborate influence-peddling scheme.''

McCain has long had a rocky relationship with the conservative wing of the GOP, and this assault, taking place in two states with early presidential primaries, puts the senator at odds with officials from such powerful groups as the National Rifle Association and the antiabortion National Right to Life.

But the condemnation actually could give McCain's campaign a boost from voters who view him as standing up to special interests and who think his legislation is a needed response to big money in politics.

A spokesman for Norquist, Chad Cowan, insisted the lobbyists are not trying to derail McCain's presidential campaign.

''We're not trying to hurt his presidential aspirations, we just think going to New Hampshire is a good way to get some coverage, and maybe wake him up a little bit to make him understand where we're coming from,'' Cowan said.

Campaign-finance legislation passed the House of Representatives last week, and is expected to be taken up in the Senate beginning Oct. 5. The measure would ban ''soft money,'' the unlimited, unregulated contributions to political parties. Soft money is used largely to skirt the stricter limits on donations to individual candidates.

Cowan said the group wants to persuade people that the bill would take away the First Amendment right to speech, preventing such organizations as the National Right to Life and the National Rifle Association from advertising about their issues during federal elections.

''McCain's bill is a trick and a trap,'' Norquist said in a statement. ''It promises to open the political process, but for everyone but the union bosses, it shuts down whole avenues of political speech that Americans have enjoyed for over 200 years.''

The McCain campaign contends that is not true, and charged that Norquist and his friends are simply trying to protect their own financial interests.

''I think it's sad that these lobbyists need to protect their self-interest so much that they're willing to allow the Chinese Army to continue to make contributions into our political system,'' said Howard Opinsky, McCain's campaign press secretary, referring to fund-raising abuses that occurred in the 1996 election. ''Unfortunately, these lobbyists have taken a cause and turned it into a business and now they're out to protect it at any cost.''

Besides Norquist, the group is expected to include David O'Steen, president of National Right to Life, David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union, Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association, Randy Tate of the Chrtistian Coalition, and Morton Blackwell, a conservative activist. Karen Testerman, New Hampshire coordinator for Gary Bauer's presidential campaign, is expected to attend as well.

The McCain campaign repeatedly assailed the group for being more concerned that the legislation will cut into their wallets than their causes.

Norquist, for example, is a registered lobbyist and a registered foreign agent. He represents Microsoft Corp., the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, the President of the Republic of the Seychelles, and the Distilled Spirits Council, among others.

Keene, too, has clients that range from the Air Transport Association of America to American Malls International Inc. to the Limited Inc.

Of those clients, many made soft money donations to the Democratic and Republican parties - an action that would be banned under McCain's legislation. Between 1995 and 1998, for example, Microsoft gave $644,816 to the Republican Party and $167,000 to the Democratic Party. Limited Inc. gave $238,750 to the Democrats and $750,000 to the Republicans.

One person who thinks the lobbyists' efforts will backfire is Representative Martin T. Meehan, the Lowell Democrat who led the fight for campaign finance overhaul in the House.

''In the long run, it will probably help McCain because overwhelmingly, Americans want to reduce the influence of money in American politics,'' Meehan said. ''It plays right into McCain's hands.''

Meehan also said Norquist's contention that the National Right to Life and other groups will not be able to advertise if the bill becomes law is false.

''They're just not telling the truth about it,'' he said. ''It does not impede their ability to run issue ads.''

The bill would require any organization running advertising within 60 days of a federal election to disclose who paid for the ads, Meehan said. Currently, the NRA, for example, can spend unlimited amounts of money from anonymous corporations on advertising to influence an election without saying where the money came from.

''They've been arguing this would limit free speech,'' said Meehan. ''It just limits big money.''