George W. Bush's fund-raising juggernaut is on track to bring in more than $75 million for the primary campaign, an amount that will enable the Texas governor--if he secures the GOP nomination--to go on the offensive against his Democratic opponent at a time when the Democrat is likely to be severely strapped for cash.
Bush surpassed the $52 million mark this week, and some advisers say he could raise as much as $100 million by next summer's convention. In contrast, the two Democratic contenders, because they have decided to take federal matching funds, are limited to raising and spending less than half that during the primaries.
With Bush's money machine bringing in donations at an unprecedented clip, officials in both parties are only now realizing the practical implications of the ever-widening financial gap between Bush, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, and the eventual Democratic nominee.
A brimming bank account would allow Bush to stage what would amount to a full-scale general election campaign in the critical months between the practical end of the primary season in March and the party conventions in August, including a barrage of advertising aimed at taking down the Democratic nominee.
Bush advisers are already discussing a nationwide "victory tour" that would allow Bush to jump-start the general election campaign in battleground states. They also plan to spend heavily in such states as Pennsylvania and New Jersey, capitalizing on late primary contests to lay the groundwork for the big fight in November.
Indeed, Bush's fund-raising has been so impressive that some GOP strategists are urging him not only to bypass federal matching funds for the primaries, but also to reject federal underwriting for the general election.
By forgoing $67 million in public money for the fall 2000 contest, Bush would be free to raise and spend unlimited sums on his quest for the White House--a feat that has never been attempted since the post-Watergate finance system was put in place.
Whether or not he takes that strategic leap, Bush is undoubtedly in an enviable financial position.
Even though his spending from now through the convention must technically be aimed at winning the GOP nomination, federal rules impose few practical restraints on the type of advertising or other activity he could engage in during that period. Republican and Democratic election lawyers agreed that Bush could directly attack the Democratic nominee in his advertising next spring and summer and continue to pour money into states well after their primaries are over.
"His campaign can use the money for anything it wants except for personal use," said one election lawyer. "He can't buy himself a car, he can't send his kids to college or pay the mortgage."
Because Bush did not take federal matching funds, he could continue to raise money through the spring and summer, replenishing his bank account with money from other candidates' supporters as rivals drop out of the race.
"All the Republicans who want to come home after they've been with one of his opponents can give direct, new money to the Bush campaign," said Wayne Berman, a Washington business consultant and top Bush fund-raiser. "Bush is going to be able to run a full-tilt campaign against the Democratic nominee on the basis of continuing to raise money from those new sources."
In addition, Bush does not have to comply with state-by-state spending ceilings that would otherwise limit the amount of money he could spend in such high-cost--and politically important--states as California and Florida.
"What you want is flexibility, and this gives him enormous flexibility," said GOP strategist Ron Kaufman, who was White House political director under President George Bush. "You can make decisions that don't rule out other decisions. It's a terrific strategic and tactical advantage."
Bernadette Budde, senior vice president at the Business Industry Political Action Committee, said she expects Bush to mount a 50-state, year-round campaign using billboards, radio ads, TV spots, bumper stickers and an army of Republican political talent.
"The most obvious advantage is you can be in charge of your own message," she said, instead of looking to the political party or outside groups to buttress the campaign.
Colby College political scientist Anthony Corrado said the money can help Bush not only solidify his Republican base, but also begin reaching out to Reform Party members and the suburban swing voters who are likely to once again determine the outcome of the general election.
"He'll try to lock up some of that independent, moderate and Reform vote before Al Gore has a chance to make his pitch to them," he said.
The Bush team legally could even hold on to some of its primary money and transfer it later in 2000 to party committees and candidates--perhaps to help fund "issue ads" against the Democrats or, if Bush's prospects look strong, to supplement the GOP's efforts to keep control of the House.
But Bush advisers said they do not expect to share the wealth in that way and will instead lend their premier fund-raisers to the Republican National Committee once their own money raising has been completed.
By contrast, the eventual Democratic nominee is likely to face a serious financial bind between March and August. Vice President Gore, once a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination, is virtually dead even with former senator Bill Bradley in several polls and the money chase.
Even if Gore defeats Bradley, Gore's advisers concede he will have to spend a good chunk of his money in the process. And because Gore has decided to accept matching funds--and abide by the $40 million primary spending cap--he will be unable to raise any more money once he hits that mark.
"Gore has already spent almost a quarter of his $40 million total" allowed under the primary spending limits, said University of Southern California political scientist Herb Alexander. "He still faces three tough months of primaries next winter. It's getting very expensive."
Several neutral analysts said the 2000 campaign could look like the reverse of spring 1996, when Democrats were flush with cash and Republican nominee Robert J. Dole, bloodied and broke from his primary fight, hobbled into the summer convention and never recovered against President Clinton.
Gore advisers acknowledged the importance of the March-through-August period but said they will still have the financial resources to compete.
"We've always known this election will be won between March and August," said one veteran Gore strategist, who acknowledged Gore will be reliant on the Democratic National Committee to spread his message through the spring. "We will be in a general election come March 14."
Although Gore's team has spent at a faster rate than any other campaign this season, his advisers contend they are making wise investments and will tuck away enough to continue traveling next spring and summer.
"What Al Gore needs is the ante, and we have that," said consultant Bill Knapp. "And the Democratic Party has enough to make its case." Knapp estimated the DNC spent $50 million on "issue advocacy" ads touting the Clinton-Gore team in 1996. "We have no reason to believe the DNC will not commit a similar sum in issue advocacy ads this cycle," he said.
But Republicans maintain that their party, by harnessing the enthusiasm Bush is generating and tapping his network of fund-raising dynamos dubbed the "Pioneers," will far surpass the Democratic fund-raising effort being led by a lame-duck president.
Republican election lawyer Jan Baran said Bush may be the first presidential nominee strong enough politically and financially to disregard the entire federal system and finance his campaign entirely with private contributions.
"If I were the presumed nominee in March and I had $20 million to $30 million in my bank account, I would seriously consider forgoing the federal money in the general election," Baran said. "It would give me the least restrictions under election laws."
Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said: "There is no plan to forgo public funds for the general election." But a senior Bush adviser was privately far less categorical. "It's still premature to be having this conversation," the adviser said.
The most obvious reason for taking the federal money is simply the size of the check. Even Bush's awesome money machine may have trouble vacuuming up that much cash in a relatively short period of time, several of his fund-raisers acknowledged.
"You don't want to be worried with fund-raising when you're targeting voters in the final stretch," said one Bush money man.
But others say it is easy to see Bush duplicating his primary fund-raising simply by going back to his donors and asking them for a second check for the general election.
"Given the list he's building and the fund-raising network he's building," Corrado said, "it's certainly doable."
Staff writer Ben White contributed to this report.
Rules of the Road
Candidates who accept federal matching funds (up to $16 million this campaign) agree to abide by an overall spending limit (about $40 million this campaign) as well as state-by-state caps.
Candidates who do not take part in the matching fund system can raise and spend unlimited amounts. However, they still must raise their money in increments no larger than $1,000.
Candidates are supposed to spend the money they have collected for the primaries on securing their party's nomination, and must have spent their money by the time of the nominating conventions. But the rules give them wide latitude on what activities fit that definition.
Major party candidates are entitled to full public funding, about $67 million. The Reform Party candidate is eligible for about $13 million. If they take the money, candidates cannot spend any more than that directly on their campaigns.
If a major party candidate decides not to take public funding, he or she would be allowed to raise and spend any amount of money, but would be limited to contributions of $1,000.