McCain, Bradley pledge war on 'soft' money
Pair court independent voters in unusual joint meeting, to be televised tonight
By Ron Fournier, Associated Press, 12/16/99
CLAREMONT, N.H. -- In a summit of presidential underdogs, Republican John McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley courted independent voters today and jabbed their front-running rivals with a joint pledge to pursue "genuine campaign finance reform."
The Arizona senator and former New Jersey senator signed a statement before their unusual joint appearance, saying: "We pledge that as the nominees for the office of president of the United States we will not allow our political parties to spend soft money for our presidential campaigns, and we commit to working together toward genuine campaign finance reform."
So-called "soft money" refers to unlimited, unregulated donations that are supposed to be used for party-building activities. Increasingly, the money has become a major loophole in campaign finance laws, used to indirectly aid presidential and congressional campaigns.
McCain and Bradley have mounted surprisingly strong challenges to their parties' favorites -- Vice President Al Gore for the Democrats and Gov. George W. Bush for Republicans. Gore supports a soft money ban; Bush does not.
In his opening remarks, McCain reminded voters that Gore said there was "no controlling legal authority" that forbade his questionable fund-raising activities during the 1996 presidential campaign.
"I want to tell the vice president and everybody else that when I'm president there will be a controlling legal authority," McCain said. "I can understand why the vice president would oppose it but I can't understand why Governor Bush would oppose such a thing."
Bradley, who attacked Gore's record on the issue this week, targeted Bush with his toughest remarks.
"I think he has ... snubbed his nose at the public finance laws," Bradley said, referring to the Texan's decision to bypass spending limits to raise record amounts of money. Aides said Bradley wanted to focus on issues in the town hall without appearing to take potshots at Gore.
He did slip in one jab.
Told that Gore has supported a similar soft money ban in the 2000 election -- a position long held by the vice president -- Bradley said, "I'm glad he's finally come over."
Their high-profile town hall meeting and joint news conference drew dozens of journalists to the town of Claremont. It was held at the same site where President Clinton and Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich promised in 1995 to form a commission to study campaign finance changes.
That commission never materialized.
Taking advantage of attention given to the event, Bradley's campaign began airing a new television ad in New Hampshire and Iowa. In it, the former senator says campaign finance reform is key to "virtually everything else" he wants to accomplish as president, including improving health care.
Though both served long stints in Congress and have raised tens of millions of dollars in political donations, McCain and Bradley are running as Washington outsiders committed to scrubbing the system clean.
Beyond a soft-money ban, Bradley said he supported public financing of elections and free television time for candidates -- two positions Gore has endorsed, as well. McCain supports free television time, but doesn't think taxpayers should pay for campaigns.
McCain and Bradley need strong support from independents, particularly in a state such as New Hampshire that opens its party primary to all voters. Campaign finance reform is a compelling issue to many independents.
The strategy carries a risk for McCain, because Republican leaders -- including Bush -- and special interest allies object to changes in campaign finance laws that could upset their fund-raising advantage over Democrats. The Arizona senator is urging rank-and-file Republicans to see the issue as a conservative cause, arguing Wednesday that special interests fight against cuts in government, tax reform and sensible military spending.
Bradley's problem isn't his party as much as it is Gore, who won't let the former lawmaker seize the campaign finance reform mantle without a fight.
In a full-page ad in today's editions of the Claremont Eagle Times, the vice president praises McCain for showing "real courage" in fighting for campaign finance reform. He also urges voters to "look beyond the rhetoric of the candidates to the actual record."
There was no mention of Bradley, but none was needed: Gore clearly implied that he, not Bradley, is the true champion of political reform.
Leading up to the session, Bradley accused Gore of paying mere "lip service" to reform. He has talked darkly of the 1996 campaign finance controversy that entangled Gore.
Analysts in both parties said McCain and Bradley stood to benefit from the meeting.
"I think it's a win-win for both of them," said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick of California, who is not tied to a presidential campaign. "They are using campaign finance reform to differentiate themselves from their opponents."
"It might be a gimmick, but it's a good one," said GOP consultant David Carney of New Hampshire.