Forbes to Offer Another GOP Response to Speech, in 'Issue Advocacy' Ad
By Ruth Marcus
Viewers who watch President Clinton's State of the Union address tonight on CNN will get a sneak preview of one of the leading GOP contenders for Clinton's job in 2000. The potential candidate, Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, won't be delivering the official Republican response, but rather will be starring in a 60-second commercial slot assailing the president's tax policy.
"It's time for Washington to restrain spending and pass real tax cuts for all Americans," Forbes tells viewers on the ad, which will run before and after Clinton's speech on MSNBC and Fox News as well as CNN.
The ad, paid for by Forbes's new issues advocacy organization, Americans for Hope, Growth and Opportunity (AHGO), represents the latest twist in how potential presidential candidates are getting their messages across and keeping their names in the news nearly three years before the next election.
Forbes and another past and likely future GOP presidential rival, Lamar Alexander, are using "issue advocacy" advertising, a technique employed by special interest groups and political parties during the 1996 campaign.
This time around, it's the potential candidates themselves who are running such commercials Forbes through AHGO and Alexander through a state political action committee. In the last few weeks, Forbes and Alexander were on the air in New Hampshire with radio spots about state education funding, and both said they expect to do more such advertising as the year progresses. New Hampshire holds the first presidential primary.
Prospective presidential candidates in previous years have used political action committees and other entities to finance travel to key primary states or make targetted political donations, but using them to run commercials is a new development, said University of Southern California political scientist Herbert Alexander. "I don't think there has been this kind of advertising in the past."
Perhaps the closest analogy occurred during the 1996 campaign, when GOP presidential candidate Robert J. Dole ordered his Better America Foundation closed after Democrats and others complained he was using it for activities promoting himself, including a fund-raising brochure with his picture and a television commercial in which he starred.
Forbes has conducted by far the largest campaign so far, about $500,000 on radio, television and print advertising in 20 states on issues such as partial-birth abortion, assisted suicide, drug legalization and the flat tax all paid for by Americans for Hope, Growth and Opportunity.
Unlike a political action committee, AHGO, which has raised $4.1 million in the last year, faces no legal restrictions on how much it can accept in contributions or from what source. While the group doesn't have to file disclosure reports, its president, William Dal Col, said he plans to post a list of 1997 contributors on the Internet within several weeks. Forbes has been the largest contributor, donating $100,000.
Dal Col said Forbes's spate of issue advocacy advertising was not particularly relevant to a future presidential bid because the spending is so minimal, about $10,000 in the case of the New Hampshire campaign. "It doesn't hurt, but in terms of identifying the individual it really doesn't have a significant impact," Dal Col said. "For people to identify with the individual you need a lot more than that."
Alexander is using a different approach to finance his advertising, collecting money through a state political action committee, Campaign for a New American Century. Alexander's state PAC, headquartered in his home state of Tennessee, can accept unlimited individual contributions, although not corporate funds, unlike a federal PAC, which is limited to individual donations of $5,000.
Alexander's PAC spent about $15,000 on 10 days of radio spots to defend New Hampshire's financing of public schools via local property taxes, recently overturned by the state Supreme Court. His spots on the issue mentioned his name or the word "I" five times in 60 seconds, as in "Here's where I stand," and "As U.S. education secretary, I've seen lots of schools."
PAC director Brian Kennedy said New Hampshire was the first of about a dozen states, including Iowa, where the PAC would air advertising this year on issues like education, taxes and race relations. "Clearly, issue advocacy after 1996 is more and more commonplace . . . and it's an important part of our political dialogue," he said. "We should be encouraging it, not discouraging it."
But some campaign finance experts said they found this spending by Forbes and Alexander a disturbing development because of the looser or non-existent disclosure rules and contribution limits.
The advertising "shows how meaningless many of these limits on presidential campaigns have now become," said Colby College political scientist Anthony Corrado.
In a special congressional election in California this month, a PAC headed by conservative activist and potential presidential candidate Gary Bauer took a more traditional approach. It spent $100,000 for television advertising that explicitly attacked one GOP candidate on the subject of partial-birth abortion and urged support for Tom Bordonaro, who faces a run-off next month.
Because they expressly advocated Bordonaro's election, the commercials by Bauer's PAC, called the Campaign for Working Families, were considered "independent expenditures" on Bordonaro's behalf, subject to federal reporting requirements and contribution rules.
PAC director Peter Dickinson said the PAC, which raised more than $2 million last year, is considering intervening in the Illinois GOP primary in March as well as other races across the country. "We did not run commercials saying, 'This is Gary Bauer,' " he said. "We ran commercials talking about the issues and the differences between the candidates."
Still, Dickinson said, "when you say who are the potential presidential candidates, it's clear it needs to be someone who has shown an understanding of the political process and an ability to compete in it. . . . It's incumbent on them that they've had this kind of voice."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company