How the color of big money will shade Campaign 2000

By David M. Shribman, Globe Staff, 09/05/99

ONCORD, N.H. - A mere eight months ago, when the last year of the 20th century began, the ground rules for presidential politics were well-established and well-understood.

Nomination fights were getting costlier, but they still were run on modest budgets, in many cases much less than Fortune 500 companies spend to roll out new household products.

Small states like New Hampshire and Iowa, holding to their heritage of personal politics, would require candidates to conduct intimate, evocative campaigns.

Minor candidates still faced difficult odds, but the early political contests offered them (and their new ideas) at least a platform - and a chance.

The struggle for the presidency and the clash over issues, which a team of British journalists once described as ''an American melodrama,'' constituted one of the most riveting spectacles in the nation's civic life.

All that was still part of the American political tradition when 1999 began. None of it holds true as we near 2000, and the climax of a race for the White House that is also a race for the record books.

No presidential nomination fight ever cost as much as the 2000 campaign will. None revved up so early as this campaign did. None could end as abruptly as the current campaign. And none has been about so little, with so little debate, so little disagreement, so little at stake.

The campaign that marks the end of the 20th century also marks the end of a political era, providing ample evidence that the politics of the next century - more expensive, more sterile, more inscrutable to the average American - will be different in profound ways from anything that preceded it.

The whole political world - all the assumptions that lie beneath it, all the actions that animate it, all the factors that shape it - has been altered.

At the root of much of this is money.

''We've never seen this much money this early have this much impact and replace to such an extraordinary degree real voters,'' said Ellen Miller, executive director of Public Campaign, a group that monitors fund-raising practices. ''The danger is that big money may have chosen the candidates even before the voters get a chance to speak.''

Through the midsummer reporting period, George W. Bush, the Texas governor, had raised more than $37 million for his GOP nomination campaign, nearly double the impressive amount (almost $20 million) that Vice President Al Gore raised for his Democratic campaign. The $10.6 million that Bush raised in Texas alone was more than nine other presidential candidates raised in the entire country. In addition, magazine publisher Steve Forbes raised nearly $10 million and can draw upon his own fortune.

''This race marks a substantial change,'' said Anthony Corrado, a Colby College political scientist who is an expert on campaign finance. ''It has generally been the case in the last few elections that money has played the role of being the first primary. What's different about this race is that George W. Bush has not only won the money primary, but he's the only one in it.''

That has implications not only for the process of picking a nominee, but also for the result. Business school professors from the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business and Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management published a study in the journal Economics and Politics last year suggesting that candidates who raise large sums do more than fill their coffers. They also lead voters to conclude that they have large amounts of popular support.

That theory is borne out in two important test groups this year. The first group is New Hampshire Republicans, who, according to a new Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll, are flocking to Bush's side. The second is a savvy group of insiders, Republicans on Capitol Hill. Bush has the support of about two-thirds of GOP House members, an astonishing achievement given the innate caution of elected officials who themselves must face the voters next November.

The scale of the financial arms race for the 2000 election is far greater than it was even recently.

Only a dozen years ago, in 1988, the Republicans and Democrats stretched to gather a group of donors who would contribute $100,000. By the last election, in 1996, the target group was $250,000 donors. Four years ago, the Republicans were able to persuade only two companies to contribute more than $1 million in the unregulated party funds known as ''soft money.'' In the 2000 campaign, GOP leaders are hoping to attract 100 such donors - and the Democrats have vowed, somewhat less convincingly, to keep pace.

This explosion of money-raising hasn't escaped public attention; eight of ten New Hampshire voters surveyed in the Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll being published today said they considered it somewhat or very important to have a candidate who stresses the issue of campaign-finance overhaul.

Already, the two national parties raised more than $55 million in soft money in the first half of this year, compared with about $31 million in the first six months of 1995. The telecommunications, securities, insurance, and real-estate industries each donated more than $3 million in the first six months of the year, according to Common Cause, the self-styled citizens' lobby.

But the big change is a result of more than simply the scale of the finances. It is a result also of the pace of the campaign.

Ordinarily, presidential elections begin slowly, with much of the maneuvering - the jousting for positions, the jostling for influential backers and workers, the jockeying for public attention - occurring beneath the surface. Political professionals, knowing that the campaign season began with contests in Iowa and New Hampshire in February and concluded with primaries in New Jersey and California in June, inevitably counseled candidates to think of the race as a marathon, not a sprint.

This primary campaign is a sprint. It begins in late January or early February with caucuses in Iowa, followed probably eight days later by a primary here in New Hampshire, with contests only 28 days later in the huge and expensive states of California and New York, which are to hold their primaries on March 7. On that day, votes are scheduled for important states such as Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Ohio, which in the past held critical but separate primaries.

The result is like a prime racing day at Rockingham: a fast track and a firm turf.

This works to strengthen the position of a candidate who opens up a lead quickly, but it also may make it easier for a well-positioned contender to make a late kick. In the Democratic race, the clustered primaries that appeared to be a big edge for Gore might instead be a disadvantage, for it would be more difficult for him to respond in 2000 to a poor early showing against former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who, according to the Globe/WBZ-TV poll, is breathing down Gore's neck in New Hampshire.

''This is a millennial campaign,'' said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at California's Claremont Graduate University. ''Everything is speeded up to warp speed, so why not the presidential campaign? As difficult as it was for people who are unknown and not rich in the past, it is more difficult than ever.''

The campaign schedule had the unintended effect of increasing the importance of campaign money, rewarding the strong and punishing the weak, and thus a process that once was performed by voters is instead, increasingly, dictated by the calendar.

''The front loading worked in a different way we expected, because it allowed the money to be the winnower,'' said Thomas D. Rath, the New Hampshire GOP committeeman and a prominent campaign adviser to former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander, who left the race last month. ''Everyone understood that if you didn't have money you couldn't play. But if you couldn't show any strength you couldn't get the money. It was circular.''

For six years, Alexander conducted a textbook campaign, visiting small-town newspaper editors, pausing in suburban living rooms, gaining a vision of the American landscape that comes from the seat of a tractor in an Iowa cornfield. He stuck to that strategy even as the rules were changing, penalizing rather than rewarding him for his efforts.

But Alexander is not alone. Other underdogs have found it almost impossible to win attention, support, or even faint signs of encouragement in the new atmosphere - all factors that nudged Representative John R. Kasich of Ohio out of the Republican race in early summer.

''You can sense the discouragement of the minor candidates,'' said Charles Weed, a political scientist at New Hampshire's Keene State College. ''The Republicans this time have fund-raisers instead of open houses. The Democratic race doesn't seem as open as earlier races were. It's exclusive, in part because there are only two of them.''

The result is a different character for the New Hampshire primary, which once was a chance for voters to encounter candidates, for candidates to have campaign-trail epiphanies, for Americans to gauge the mettle and take the measure of presidential contenders in everyday settings.

''The New Hampshire primary used to be about kicking the tires and shaking the hands, and this time it is kind of like a beauty pageant - and it isn't even a pageant, because there is only one beauty,'' said Deborah Arnesen, a Democrat who ran for governor in New Hampshire in 1992. ''George W. Bush comes here not looking for the state's support but to create the illusion that there's a primary that he in the end will win. It's a game, but it's political Monopoly.''

The money race and the fast pace of the campaign have stoked a struggle but not a debate. The two Democratic candidates are out of the New Democrat mold and give priority to issues such as economic growth, racial reconciliation, environmental protection, and continued support of Social Security. The Republican candidates differ on little, with general agreement on taxes (lower and generally flatter), abortion (opposition) and gun control (modest) and with the only skirmishes occurring on matters of nuance and emphasis.

Indeed, there has been surprisingly little conflict on matters of policy, in part because the views of some of the leading contenders, including Bush and former Red Cross President Elizabeth Dole, have not been refined at this stage in the campaign.

As early as the summer of 1987, seven months before the first political contests of the 1988 Democratic campaign, Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Governor Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts were sparring over trade matters, with the two actually debating the issue at an Iowa forum. There has been no similar confrontation in either party thus far.

''The uncomfortable fact is that people who duck issues maintain popularity, and that is happening in both parties to some extent,'' said former Senator Paul Simon of Illinois, a Democratic presidential contender in 1988. ''And in the case of Gore, he's putting out so many issues that nothing is sticking.''