Will the money spoil his message?

By Joan Vennochi, Globe Columnist, 2/4/2000

ow hard is it to flush out campaign contributions when you bash the system that allows them to flourish? It's not as hard as you might think - as long as people see you as a winner.

The more difficult issue for Arizona Senator John McCain may be this: How much money can you take and from whom and still claim to be a proponent of campaign finance reform?

In all of 1999, McCain raised less than $14 million. After he beat Texas Governor George W. Bush in New Hampshire, McCain, the candidate for campaign reform, raised more than $741,000 over the Internet. His traditional fund-raising apparatus is kicking in as well. Like all campaigns, the heart of McCain's fund-raising effort beats around a small group of influential business people who believe in the candidate, heart, soul, and wallet.

In Boston, for example, the group includes Marshall Carter, chairman and chief executive officer for State Street Bank, who is also on McCain's national finance committee. He co-hosted two fund-raisers for McCain - one last month with Hale and Dorr lawyer Ernest Klein and one in September with Fidelity executive David Weinstein - that raised $100,000.

This week, Carter mailed out 627 fund-raising letters around the country on McCain's behalf. The missive, seeking contributions of $1,000, praises the candidate as a patriot and hero, a ''solid pro-business Republican,'' and ''a president who can make us proud.'' The letter mentions McCain's support for campaign finance reform but doesn't dwell on it.

Like McCain, Carter hails from a military family, and the two served in Vietnam. Their shared background is an obvious connection, but Carter says his reasons for supporting McCain go beyond that. The most important: McCain's character and leadership capabilities.

Clearly, character and campaign finance reform are strong themes in McCain's quest. But it's a lot harder to sell campaign finance reform to the kind of people national campaigns need most - business people with lots of money to contribute. When McCain talks about money's corrosive influence on politics, the little people cheer. What about people with big bucks and big agendas to go with them?

Can he continue to talk about it and still raise money? And if he does, can he keep the reformer message that made him a winner in New Hampshire? Carter believes he can. He says he agrees with McCain's goal ''of limiting all candidates to limits which force them to appeal to broader constituencies.'' As a McCain supporter, he says he wants only one thing: ''I am looking for this country to be led by people we can be proud of.''

But the forces opposing McCain will push hard to paint him as an equivocator, a hypocrite, and worse. An article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal detailed the senator's extensive record of deciding how the federal government should or shouldn't regulate business and whose interests he represented in each decision.

More is sure to come, including a repackaging of the so-called Keating Five scandal and any and all access McCain has provided to financial services, telecommunications interests, and anyone else who has come before the Senate Commerce Committee, which he chairs.

So far McCain's reply has been an acknowledgement that to some degree he too is tarnished by the system he wants to change. But at some point, he will have to tell us plainly where and when he drew the line between money, access, and influence.

Up until now, the smart Republican money has been with Bush. He raised nearly $70 million last year and started 2000 with $31 million in the bank. Bay State businessman Joe O'Donnell, a Massachusetts finance cochairman for the Bush campaign, contends that, post-New Hampshire, ''a small amount of fickle money'' might go to McCain. But, he says, ''The smart money stays with George W. - it's Bush versus Gore.''

Right now, the McCain campaign doesn't care if the money is smart, stupid, fickle, or just scared the senator might beat the huge odds against him and win - as long as it comes in.

The candidate has no choice. He needs money to keep his campaign alive. For those who like him mostly because of his campaign reform message: Can it stay alive with the candidate?

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist.