This is how ACT plans to spend the wealth of donors to sway the election: In 13 states, $8-an-hour staffers such as Joe Florence, 22, go door to door armed with voter names downloaded into a Palm Pilot and colorful brochures attacking Bush's record on issues ranging from the economy to health care.
Florence compares his work to political bosses of yore. "Twenty years ago, you would have had precinct captains knocking on doors, and you don't have that anymore," the political science graduate said outside ACT's office in suburban Philadelphia recently. "What we're doing is a good thing."
Has the Democratic Party outsourced the job of voter mobilization to a start-up nonprofit group bankrolled by billionaires? FEC reports indicate the Democratic Party has nearly abandoned certain organizing activities historically central to its mission. In battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri and Florida, ACT and allied 527 groups have far more extensive voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives than state and national party groups, according to an analysis of spending in four states for The Post by Dwight L. Morris & Associates.
In those states, the Republican Party through August has spent $1.3 million -- six times as much as Democrats -- on telephone banks, voter registration efforts and vans to get people to the polls.
Because ACT often seems remarkably in sync with Democratic Party activities, campaign finance reformers and Republicans earlier this year alleged in complaints filed with the FEC that the group violated the campaign finance law. The Republican Party's brief said Kerry had become "the largest beneficiary of illegal soft money in history."
Under the law, ACT must not coordinate with any political party, committee or candidate for office, but FEC rules on coordination are unclear in light of legal challenges that will not be settled until after the election.
Virtually all of the key participants in ACT, from the national level to the states, have had some significant role in Democratic politics in the past. More than a dozen of the officials, lawyers, board members and activists running the leading Democratic 527 groups have strong ties or previously were employed with the Kerry campaign or the Democratic Party. Staff members have gone back and forth between the groups and the Kerry campaign.
Ickes, the chief of staff of ACT and former director of The Media Fund, is a member of the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee. Official minutes and meeting transcripts show the executive committee got campaign briefings from Kerry's campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, and top DNC officials.
Ickes denies that there was any coordination and said his attorney advised him that his committee membership was legal because there is no discussion regarding the DNC's communication strategies. "The executive committee of the DNC knows less about what the DNC is doing than the average newspaper reader," Ickes said.
After the election, Bush, Congress and the courts have all vowed to take a second look at 527s. Many people who work for the groups expect the law will be altered and the playing field changed again. If not, corporations and CEOs might resume soft money giving at 1980s levels again.
"Without congressional action, 527 organizations will become even more important in the 2006 election," FEC Commissioner Michael E. Toner said. "In a Senate or House contest, a group that can raise $10 million has the ability to drive the entire election by spending that kind of money."
Researchers Alice Crites and Don Pohlman contributed to this report.