Rivals over spending caps, Bush camp says

By Jill Zuckman, Globe Staff, 1/5/2000

ANCHESTER, N.H. - Suddenly, the Bush campaign has gotten very interested in federal campaign finance laws.

Although Texas Governor George W. Bush is not taking federal matching funds - having raised more money than any presidential candidate in history, he does not need to - his campaign is distributing detailed charts with line-by-line descriptions of spending by rival campaigns.

What they want the voters of New Hampshire to believe is that John McCain, who has made campaign finance reform the centerpiece of his campaign, is breaking state spending caps and federal election law.

''The law says, `If you accept federal matching funds, you accept state caps,''' a senior Bush adviser said. ''How can the guy who's a big advocate of campaign finance reform be breaking the law?''

And both McCain and Bill Bradley, another zealous advocate of campaign reform, are giving the distinct appearance of bursting through the $661,000 limit in New Hampshire. And Bradley, according to figures provided by Bush officials, also looks as if he has cracked the cap in Iowa, which is set at $1.3 million.

The problem is that appearances can be deceiving given the byzantine rules that govern the caps, which are full of loopholes and deductions and open to gimmicks that allow campaigns to spread the actual spending in New Hampshire to other accounts. And McCain and Bradley officials loudly protest the notion that they are doing anything other than following the law laid out by the Federal Election Commission.

Under the rules, for example, the campaigns can call their television advertising in New Hampshire fund-raising costs, a separate category, if the commercials ask for contributions. Also, advertising costs for WMUR-TV, a main New Hampshire television station, can be partially written off as costs incurred to reach voters in Massachusetts.

''I think people are creative, and I think they push the envelope,'' said Kathy Sullivan, New Hampshire's Democratic chairwoman. ''You end up at a point where these guys have to go through awful contortions.''

In 1980, then-candidate Ronald Reagan and his campaign entourage used to sleep in hotels just south of the border in Massachusetts. That way, the cost of hotel rooms would not be charged against the New Hampshire spending cap.

Today, hotel costs in New Hampshire no longer apply to the state spending limit. After every presidential election, the FEC has tried to make it easier for candidates to compete in New Hampshire and Iowa with fewer mathematical gymnastics, according to specialists in election law. FEC officials would like to eliminate the caps, but Congress has ignored the recommendation.

The spending caps were created as part of the 1974 Watergate reforms to prevent candidates from swooping into a small state and dumping vast amounts of money in an effort to buy an election, said Jan Baran, a Republican election lawyer in Washington who served as President George Bush's general counsel in 1988.

While campaigns can get around the caps, Baran said, it is still possible to break the law. ''If people haven't planned properly or are spending a huge amount of money on last minute ad buys, they could bust it,'' he said.

FEC auditors usually do not examine a campaign's books until after a candidate drops out or wins the nomination. That means that candidates can flout the law, win the nomination, and pay no meaningful penalty other than a fine.

That galls Bush officials who watched McCain and Bradley shake hands on national television over their shared contempt for special interests contaminating the campaign finance system.

''They're shaking hands, saying we must elevate the system, and they're the two guys busting the current law,'' one senior Bush adviser said.

According to figures provided by the Bush campaign, McCain has spent $1,006,067 in New Hampshire. Reducing costs to take Massachusetts television viewers into account, the Bush campaign contends that McCain has spent $555,921 to date, without factoring in his on-the-ground expenses. McCain has spent little money in Iowa, refusing to compete there.

McCain officials hotly reject the Bush figures but refused to provide their own, saying they did not want the Bush campaign to know how much money they have left to spend on the New Hampshire primary.

''There's one set of rules, and we're following them,'' said John Weaver, McCain's national political director. ''The Bush campaign is confusing having a message with cash.''

Weaver said that by the time the New Hampshire primary has ended Feb. 1, the Bush campaign will have outspent McCain by 4 or 5 to 1. Already, he said, Bush has outspent McCain by more than 2 to 1. But because Bush is not taking federal matching funds, he need not abide by state spending limits.

Bush officials declined to say how much money their campaign has spent in New Hampshire, nor how much they intend to spend.

Media buyers have estimated that Bradley has spent $3.56 million in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, compared with $2.17 million for Gore.

The Bradley camp refuted any suggestion that its candidate is doing anything other than scrupulously abiding by the rules.

''No, of course not,'' said Eric Hauser, Bradley's spokesman, when asked whether Bradley had broken any caps. ''We have not and aren't going to. It's just not true.''