In a battle for the presidency that promises to carry a price tag of $100 million-plus for the two major tickets combined, the Republicans are leaving the Democrats in their dust raising and spending money.
Under federal campaign spending limits, each candidates is held to the $29.4 million he recevied from the U.S. Treasury, and each national party is allowed to spend $4.6 million in direct behalf of the presidential candidates.
But enterprising fund-raisers may legally tip the dollar balances in two major outside those limits -- in party spending at the state and local level and in the more highly publicized category of spending by groups independent of the candidate.
The Republicans are millions ahead of their rivals in both areas, and in ways that point up seming paradoxes in the parties' images compared with the sources of their money.
Depending on whose estimates you accept, expectations ae that the Republicans and their supporters will spend between $17 million and $45 million in these two categories, compared with the Democrats' $7 million to $15 million. Adding these ranges to the regulated amounts allowed each side, the general election battle between President Carter and Ronald Reagan will cost a minimum of $93 million and could go well over $130 million. r
Those figures do not include the millions spent by independent candidate John B. Anderson and other candidates outside the major parties, nor do they include the approximately $100 million spent in the primary process.
Last year, after complaints that the spending laws virtually had eliminated such colorful Americana as presidential buttons, posters, bumper stickers and grass-roots volunteers from the 1976 campaign, Congress approved changes that give the parties a significant new role in this area. State and local party committeed now may spend unlimited amounts on volunteer-related activities, from the production and distrib of buttons and stickers to massive voter registration and get-out-the-vote activities.
The Republican Party expects to spend approximately $10 million through state and local party organizations during the general election, according to Drew Lewes, deputy director of the Republican National Committee. Most of that already has been raised.
The Democrats expect to spend only $3 million to $5 million n this category through state and local committees. Democratic National Committee officials had trouble coming up with any estimate at all, and the $3 million-to-$5 million figure came, after several days, from Tim Finchem, deputy national campaign director for Carter/Mondale. Much of that, he added, is "being raised."
Finchem contended that the Republicans will spend considerably more than they are publicly estimating: "They'll spend $25 million for Reagan" through state and local party entities, he said. The campaign yesterday released an official "fact sheet" reducing that estimate to $20 million.
The RNC's Lewis responded that the Democratic estimates are "inconceivable."
In any case, according to Federal Election Commission officials, much of the skyrocketing spending in this category "isn't going to show up anywhere" in the watchdog commission's centralized public records, because the law doesn't require it.
The Republicans, who traditionally outspend Democrats in presidential elections, are regarded as the party of big contributors, while the Democrats are traditionally seen as relying on financial support and leg work from the common folk. But fund-raising figures indicate that is not so. The Republicans are leagues ahead in the number of small contributions received and in organizing grass-roots volunteers.
The Democrats' Finchem said the law was not supposed to allow such a scope of activities as those in which the Republicans are indulging. He blamed the situation in part on "sloppy draftmanship by Democrats in Congress, and the way the FEC is interpreting the law."
Others contend such complaints are sour grapes from a party caught napping.
Said Fred Wertheimer of the public interest lobby Common Cause, "We see this change in the law as a plus, designed to enhance the role of the political party. . . . The Democrats are suffering because they have not built a base of small contributors."
The other big category outside the federal spending limits is in so-caled "independent expenditure" groups. There are at least five significant groups in this category raising money for Reagan, but none doing any noteworthy work for Carter.
Estimates of what the groups will spend on Reagan's behalf range from $7 million to $20 million, the latter amount alleged by Finchem. This falls far short of the groups' earlier predictions that they would raise as much as $70 million, but it is still enough to set the Democrats howling.
Both the Carter campaign and Common Cause have tried in vain to stop such efforts.
Carter's campaign chairman, Robert S. Strauss, last week called the spending gap "a damned outrage" and said the money cornucopia of the hard right "is going to drown our message, I'm afraid."
The Democrats also claim that so-called nonpartisan but anti-Carter groups, such as right-wing TV evangelists, thg gun lobby and others, will spend $165 million in indirect support of Reagan.
The Reagan forces counter that big labor will even things up for Carter on the spending front, pouring money and manpower into the breach. Labor will spend probably $4 million to $10 million, by Finchem's estimate. Reagan supporters say the figure will be many times that much. (Some studies indicate organized labor spend $11 million in 1976.) But Finchem argued that labor's contributions cannot be as well-focused and effectively used as Reagan's extra resources can be, especially in the spending through states and local parties.
At the same time, Republican officials complain passionately about their lack of control over the independent expenditure groups working for Reagan.