Leading GOP Donors Push To Catch Up to Liberal Groups

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 21, 2008

With Sen. John McCain facing the prospect of being dramatically outspent in the race for the White House, a collection of major Republican donors and party leaders that includes former Bush strategist Karl Rove is scrambling to catch up with the efforts of liberal groups aiming to influence the outcome in November.

"The folks on the right may have a rude awakening when they see how sophisticated the infrastructure is that's been built up on the left," said Clifford May, who heads the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which could figure into the Republican effort. May, who said he has discussed the imbalance with Rove, added: "We're the little leagues compared to them."

Outside advocacy groups, most notably the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which dogged Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), played a pivotal role in the 2004 presidential contest. While individuals face strict limits on how much they can give directly to candidates for federal office and party organizations, many of the outside groups can accept unlimited donations and face a much lower bar for the disclosure of their activities.

This year, allies of President Bush such as Rove, billionaire T. Boone Pickens, New York financier Paul Singer and Florida developer Mel Sembler, who helped harness and direct millions of dollars to the 2004 campaign, are working to rekindle those efforts. But they are finding the 2008 landscape to be more challenging, according to Republican sources familiar with the ongoing talks.

Some donors have shied away from involving themselves in efforts to aid McCain, a persistent critic of back-channel campaign funds. Others have succumbed to the broader malaise among Republicans. Still others are skittish about heightened scrutiny from regulators who have vowed to crack down on outside efforts to influence this year's campaign.

"The soft-money landscape has changed," said Philip A. Musser, a Republican consultant advising the American Future Fund, another group that could play a central role in the 2008 elections. "There are a lot of organizations interested in taking on various slivers of this election, but nothing has coalesced around the presidential contest in the way we saw in 2004."

The Republican-allied organization once expected to play that role, Freedom's Watch, endured a tumultuous month of March, with a leadership change and internal disagreements about its direction. Now, the group appears poised to concentrate on competitive congressional contests. It has already run television ads in special elections for congressional seats in Ohio and Louisiana.

But a vacuum remains for Republicans in the presidential contest.

"I hear rumblings," said Brad Freeman, a Bush donor in California. "People keep asking the question, 'What are we going to do this time?' "

Sembler, a big Bush donor and former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, confirmed that he and others are working to identify a group that could help shape the agenda for the presidential campaign and steer major donors to it. A motivating factor, he said, is the sense that Democrats are much further along in their efforts.

"They are very organized. They started a whole lot earlier," Sembler said. "We are not quite as organized. But our efforts are still going forward."

During the 2004 presidential race, Democratic operatives built what amounted to a shadow party machinery from scratch. This time around, their plans center on groups that are already up and running, with names such as the Atlas Project, America Votes, Fund for America and Progressive Media USA.

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