Texas Gov. George W. Bush was attacked by Democrats and Republicans alike yesterday for his unprecedented success in piling up money. His record-setting campaign bank account -- more than $36 million raised in just four months -- is the envy of every opponent, but if they can't have his money, they hope his wallet might drag him down.
"Bush in a large way is going to be defined by this one fact," an adviser to Vice President Gore's campaign said with hope. "Polls show people don't know much about him. Now every story will say he's the $36 million man. People won't like that, and it will undermine the core of his message, which is that he's not the status quo."
The Gore adviser predicted that the list of Bush contributors, when it is made public two weeks from now, will be scrutinized by the media and by hostile campaigns. "Who are these people?" he said.
Running against Bush has so far been a singularly frustrating experience. Seemingly without effort, he has raked in money, endorsements and rave reviews while his opponents tried in vain to find an issue -- his lack of detailed policy proposals, his slippery grasp of the minutia of geopolitics -- that might scuff his image.
Now some are raising the issue of money and all it implies.
Steve Forbes, the wealthy magazine publisher who is one of 11 candidates challenging Bush for the Republican presidential nomination, went forcefully on the attack. He charged that Bush is now beholden to the Washington operators who profit from business as usual. Bush donors are "substantial people, lobbyists, part of the establishment . . . who are backing him because they know that this way there is not going to be real, substantive change," Forbes said in a television interview.
Bush moved to blunt the issue on Wednesday. While his campaign was announcing that Bush had smashed all previous fund-raising records, the candidate was outlining his views on campaign finance reform. He said he would outlaw the unlimited "soft-money" contributions from corporations and regulate the ability of companies and labor unions to compel their ranks to give money to a political action committee.
His campaign's chief spokesman, Karen Hughes, said yesterday that the money Bush raised is a "remarkable tribute, that 75,000 Americans from all 50 states in this great country felt strongly enough about Governor Bush and his message that they were willing to send $1 or $5 or $500 or a maximum of $1,000 to become a part of making him the next president of the United States."
Forbes, with his huge personal fortune, is now the only GOP candidate who can afford to battle Bush through expensive advertising and large-scale mass mail campaigns. For many months, Bush strategists have worried that Forbes will pour huge sums into television in key primary states to attack the frontrunner, as he did against Robert J. Dole in 1996. If Forbes seizes the issue, the year could close with a striking spectacle -- a multimillion-dollar advertising war over the evils of big money in politics.
Forbes campaign manager Bill Dal Col blasted Bush yesterday: "He's so tied to the lobbyists that he will have a hard time arguing that he is not bought and tied to them. On the major issues of this campaign -- dramatic tax reform, a new Social Security system for younger workers, a chance for patients to choose their doctors and parents to choose their schools -- you have him relying on the very lobbyists who block every hope of change. How's he going to carry out reform when the very lobbying groups who block all change are the key to his financial success?"
But Dal Col said the Forbes advertising will focus on "who Steve Forbes is and what he stands for. In terms of anything else I don't anticipate that at this time." Another Forbes official predicted, however -- with a hint of menace -- that "a couple of months from now there's going to be a lot of scrutiny on this."
Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson and other party leaders have urged all candidates to avoid attacking one another, but several rival campaigns were hoping yesterday that Forbes will hammer Bush on money and other issues and thereby reopen the race.
"Obviously the other candidates are hoping Forbes will blow Bush up," said an official in a competing campaign. A strategist for another underfunded Republican said, "at this point, Steve Forbes is our media team."
President Clinton was asked about the Bush fund-raising at a news conference yesterday and took the opportunity to criticize the entire Republican party for blocking campaign finance reform. "The leadership of the Republican Party in general are unanimously hostile to campaign finance reform. They don't believe in it," Clinton said.
"I think the most valuable commodity in an election . . . even more valuable than money, is ideas." And he praised Gore as the only candidate who has "actually told the American people what he would do if he got elected."
Bush spokesman Hughes begged to differ. "What [the money] symbolizes is that there is power in his ideas," she said of her candidate. "People are not willing to put their money behind something unless they really believe in it."