Republican and Democratic party officials looking ahead to a presidential race between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Gore, the two current front-runners for their party nominations, foresee Bush launching an advertising blitz next spring that Gore will be unable to match because of a serious fund-raising disadvantage.
Although the election is 16 months away, strategists on both sides are focusing on the critical window between late March, when nominees are likely to emerge, and the August conventions, when the two candidates receive about $67 million in federal money to run their general election campaigns. But if Bush and Gore maintain their leads to face each other in the general election, the Texas governor will have a decided early advantage.
Already, the Republican National Committee has launched a bold new fund-raising drive aimed at collecting millions in unregulated "soft money" to fund television ads against the Democrats. At the same time Bush -- who is preparing to forgo federal matching funds to raise and spend unlimited amounts in the primaries -- is mapping out an aggressive spring 2000 strategy that features a slew of ads puffing up his own profile and knocking down his Democratic opponent.
"We're going to have five months between the end of the primaries in March and the convention where we can stage a campaign," said one of the governor's top fund-raisers, predicting a general election-style air war.
Democrats find themselves in a far less enviable position. Gore, while still the front-runner for the nomination, has raised half of the $36.5 million Bush has collected and may have to spend a good deal of it fighting off his lone Democratic opponent, Bill Bradley. Even at this early stage, the vice president's campaign is an expensive, far-flung operation with about 10 high-priced consultants and pollsters draining precious dollars.
Gore's top money men are keenly aware of the financial challenges -- if not entirely certain of how to cope with them.
"The fact that Bush is amassing a lot of money and does not appear to have a very contentious fight for the nomination means he has tremendous resources for the general election," said one of the vice president's best fund-raisers. "Instead of spending money on primaries, you can begin spending it on the general election."
Contemplating that prospect, another Gore fund-raiser sighed: "It's absolutely deadly."
Once Gore locks down the nomination, the Democratic National Committee could come to his aid. But senior campaign officials, including chairman Tony Coelho, met recently to air concerns that the party's fund-raising team may not be able to generate the amounts needed. Last month, two prodigious Democratic fund-raisers -- lobbyist Dan Dutko and entrepreneur Alan Solomont -- agreed to help beef up the DNC's effort to solicit big donors.
Still, many in his party fear Gore may find himself in the bind that crippled 1996 Republican nominee Robert J. Dole: broke and on the defensive against a well-funded opponent.
"The campaign will be won and lost between March and August" of next year, acknowledged one Gore strategist who is fretting about Bush's fund-raising potential. "We will need to find a way to get our message out at that time."
Herb Alexander, a campaign finance specialist and professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, said that the "front-loaded" primary calendar, Bradley's strong fund-raising to date and the money it takes to compete in big states such as New York and California will force Gore to spend large sums to secure the nomination.
"For Gore, I could see the possibility of his rubbing up against the [primary spending] limit," Alexander said.
Republican accountant Stan Huckaby recalled that in 1992, when Patrick J. Buchanan entered the fray, President George Bush's team was "forced to spend $8 million to $10 million we hadn't planned on spending. It has nothing to do with how serious the opposition is; now he [Gore] has to show up in all these states, open offices, travel, rent photocopiers, pay staff."
But Gore's media consultant Bill Knapp, who as a Clinton adviser witnessed first-hand the benefits of Clinton's financial advantage over Dole during the 1996 campaign, argued that the issue in 2000 is not money but message.
"Is Bush going to have more money? Sure. Is money determinative? No," he said. "As long as the campaign has the ante -- enough to communicate and get a message across -- the disparity is a lot less important."
Yet Gore does not necessarily have the same financial weapons at his fingertips that helped Clinton win in 1996. Fund-raiser extraordinaire Terry McAuliffe, though supportive of Gore, is stretched thin, having committed to raising money for the national millennium celebration, President Clinton's library, Hillary Rodham Clinton's likely Senate race and the couple's legal defense fund.
Even within Democratic circles there is a fierce competition for cash, given the party's battle to regain control of Congress. The DNC only last week was able to wipe out the debt stemming from the 1996 campaign.
Several people soliciting money for the Democratic House and Senate campaign committees boast that donors are more focused on the hot congressional races and "the DNC ends up being the forgotten stepchild," as one put it. "They have the worst product to sell."
DNC officials say they are unconcerned. "Republicans were always going to have more money than we were," said DNC Chairman Joe Andrew. "The untold story here is the success of the DNC; we exceeded expectations."
Both Gore and Bush approached the 2000 campaign with lessons of 1996 ringing in their ears. Although Dole was the front-runner, wealthy publisher Steve Forbes inflicted pain on Dole with a slew of attack ads. While Dole, for instance, stayed within the $1 million spending cap in the Iowa caucuses, Forbes, who rejected "matching funds" and financed his own bid, spent four times that much. Clinton meanwhile had no primary opponent and stockpiled his cash.
By late March, Dole had finally secured the nomination but at a steep price. Finance reports filed in April 1996 showed the president had $21 million to spend until his convention in August compared with less than $5 million in Dole's bank account. Clinton, aided by a massive ad campaign by the DNC, blitzed the airwaves with anti-Dole commercials.
Although Republicans fired back with ads of their own, both sides agree the period was a critical factor in Dole's defeat. RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson, in the new solicitation for next year's anti-Democrat ad campaign, wrote: "We are determined to avoid a repetition of 1996. The combined Clinton-Gore, DNC and union media blitz attacking Senator Dole and Republicans proceeded uninterrupted from March through August and built a Democratic lead that we never closed."
Today, former Dole staff members say Gore's potential financial bind looks eerily familiar. "The Democrats could be facing the specter of being broke while the Republican has a substantial amount of money to define himself" through the spring and summer, said GOP pollster Bill McInturff.
Democrats say the 1996 model won't apply because the vice president's team will manage its budget better and will have a compelling sales pitch. "Dole had trouble making his own party believe in his candidacy and had trouble coming up with a message that resonated with voters," said Solomont, a former DNC finance chief.
And Gore's allies assert Bush will suffer political damage when voters learn he is, as they put it, "thumbing his nose" at the campaign finance system enacted as part of the post-Watergate reforms.
"He is running roughshod over it and the American people will see that," said Knapp. "Who's bankrolling him? There are all sorts of special interests he'll have to answer to."
Alexander said he doubts voters will punish Bush for saving the taxpayers up to $13 million in "matching funds."
"It's not the kind of issue that will fare very well behind the Beltway," he said, referring to inside Washington political junkies. "Voters have come to expect high spending [in campaigns]; they're no longer shocked by it."
Staff writer Susan B. Glasser and database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.
Rules to Run By
* Primary campaign spending is limited to $33.5 million -- unless the candidate declines federal "matching funds."
* In that case, the candidate may spend unlimited amounts, but must still raise the money in maximum contributions of $1,000 per person.
* Once the likely nominee emerges in the spring, political parties can run "issue advocacy" advertisements that indirectly promote their candidate. There is no limit on such spending, which can be paid for in part with unlimited "soft money" contributions.
* After the party conventions in August, the major party nominees receive full federal funding for their general election campaigns, an estimated $67.3 million in the 2000 election.
* From then until Election Day, the parties can also pitch in with ads, grass-roots activists and other support.
Source: Federal Election Commission and staff reports