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  •   At Election Commission, 'Exploring' Means Running

    By Susan B. Glasser
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, March 21, 1999; Page A7

    Texas Gov. George W. Bush says he hasn't made up his mind yet to run for president in 2000. Elizabeth Dole is still thinking it over. Ditto former vice president Dan Quayle and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). They're just "exploring."

    There's plenty of full-gear campaign evidence to the contrary -- the high school marching bands, the New Hampshire photo-ops, the big-dollar fund-raisers. But candidacy is an official status these Republican presidential hopefuls just aren't ready to embrace. This may be announcement season, but what they're announcing are merely "presidential exploratory committees."

    All of which raises the question, part metaphysics and part election law: When is a candidate a candidate, and why does it matter?

    From the non-candidate candidates' point of view, they want to preserve a political escape hatch, keeping their options open by insisting they're undecided. They also get the benefit of two shots at free media, attracting a crowd for the launch of their "exploratory committee" and another for their official announcement a few months down the road.

    But from the perspective of the people who regulate presidential candidates, the candidates are pursuing a political distinction without a legal difference. As far as the Federal Election Commission is concerned, exploratory committees do not exist. In other words: A presidential campaign committee by any other name is still a campaign committee.

    "Regardless of what they call themselves," said FEC spokeswoman Sharon Snyder, "they're going to be treated as regular campaign committees."

    There is, said election lawyer Kenneth A. Gross, who advised Republican Robert J. Dole's 1996 campaign, "a dichotomy between political reality and legal requirement" when it comes to who's a candidate.

    For this year's White House candidates, it's not simply an existential question. Under what is called the "testing the waters" exemption, the FEC allows truly undecided candidates to wait until they make up their mind before creating official campaign organizations and filing the requisite disclosure forms.

    But the Republicans who say they are merely "exploring" the 2000 race are already trying to stockpile the millions of dollars that will be necessary to be competitive next year. And the testing the waters rules explicitly prohibit them from "amassing" funds for later use. "Given the vast amount of money you've got to raise," said a Republican lawyer advising one of this year's presidential explorers, "you've got to crank up the fund-raising machine. And [the FEC's rules for] testing the waters are not designed to be full-scale fund-raising."

    And even if candidates could legally justify raising large sums under the testing the waters rules, he said, it would be "political suicide" to take in so much cash and not disclose it until after officially deciding to announce for the race.

    That's where FEC Form 2 comes in and creates something of a problem for those who claim they aren't yet officially running. Because the non-candidate candidates can't do what they need to under the testing the waters rules, they have to register as campaign committees. And FEC Form 2, the required way to register "a principal campaign committee," has a somewhat unfortunate headline at the top for those who profess not to be in the race: "STATEMENT OF CANDIDACY."

    Non-candidate Dole signed on the dotted line, as did McCain and Quayle. Bush submitted a carefully worded letter in lieu of the form, saying "I have not made a final determination on whether to be a candidate."

    So, rival camps soon asked, are they candidates or aren't they?

    Gross said the question reminded him of an old political cartoon with the caption: "I'm kicking off my campaign this year by denying that I'm a candidate." An FEC official, asked to define whether the statements of candidacy are in fact statements of candidacy, responded, "It's like nailing jelly to a wall."

    Indeed, the definition of a presidential candidate is not even the same from government agency to government agency. The FEC requires candidates to register when they have raised more than $5,000 for a federal election.

    The Federal Communications Commission, which determines such matters as when campaigns are eligible for reduced TV advertising rates, has its own standard: A candidate is merely someone who has announced his or her candidacy. And the Internal Revenue Service has still another definition that kicks in -- as soon as a campaign has a bank account with anything in it.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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