OVER THE years, Sen. John McCain has received generally favorable ratings from such groups as the National Rifle Association, National Right to Life Committee, American Conservative Union and Christian Coalition. That's hardly a surprise; the mostly conservative Arizona senator and seeker after the Republican presidential nomination tends to share the views of these groups on the issues they profess to care about, and to vote accordingly.

Suddenly, however, they are attacking him in New Hampshire and South Carolina, two of the early primary states in which he has been concentrating his campaign. His transgression seems to be that, against the wishes of his party leaders, he is among the leading congressional advocates of campaign finance reform. His campaign finance position has become a central theme in his presidential campaign; he offers it as proof of a promised independence from politics as usual.

The political operatives who are denouncing him -- officials of the rifle, right-to-life and other groups -- claim the legislation he supports would limit their free speech rights. Our contrary reading is that it would mainly prevent the further use of organizations such as theirs as straws to circumvent the campaign finance laws. This is not just a free-speech but a clean-election and clean-government issue that has to do with power, and particularly the power of money. The senator is on the right side of it. "These people should be our friends," his campaign spokesman laments of the attackers. They would be if all they cared about was how he generally voted on gun control, abortion, taxes, etc. Their agenda goes beyond that.

So, too, for some business lobbyists who have begun to attack the bill if not the author. They do so even as a group of CEOs of major corporations continues to speak out in support of reform as a means of halting what they rightly say has become a systematic shakedown of corporations for political contributions. The campaign financing system is corrupt. It is hard to write a bill to set it right; the difficult First Amendment problem is only one of many. The savaging of Mr. McCain for trying to find the answer is itself evidence of how money has come to dominate and distort political judgment.

The bill of which he and Sen. Russell Feingold are cosponsors is modest legislation. The main provisions to which the rifle, right-to-life and other groups object have in fact been dropped from the current version in hopes of averting a filibuster; in its current form, the bill would merely bar the use of the national party organizations to raise or spend in support of their candidates so-called soft money the candidates are forbidden by law to raise and spend themselves.

That's how most of the ugly fund-raising in the last election was done. It ought to be barred; the senator should wear the criticism he is receiving as a medal. Its effect is to enhance his stature, not reduce it.