In the wake of a Federal Election Commission decision giving the green light to "soft money" spending, a top Texas official of the Bush campaign called on pro-Republican groups to aggressively raise and spend as much as possible.
"We go flat out raising all the money we can from everybody," said Fred Meyer, one of President Bush's closest associates and Texas finance chairman of the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign, referring to groups allied with the GOP.
"There are already some organizations out there and they'll just pick up the ball. The Club for Growth and those groups. There are plenty of issue committees out there, and they'll pick it up and it will go like wildfire," he said.
The FEC on Thursday cleared the way for liberal groups to continue to raise and spend millions of dollars in unrestricted contributions to defeat Bush by voting 4 to 2 to reject a plan that would have strictly limited those activities for the remainder of the campaign.
A host of conservative groups are developing ambitious plans to raise unregulated soft money before the November election, but they face time and legal restrictions.
Such organizations as Americans for Tax Reform, Progress for America and the Club for Growth are vowing to match or exceed fundraising by liberal groups that did not wait for FEC clearance, and which have spent millions to elect Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).
"I've made it clear to nice, wealthy people that [Americans for Tax Reform] would be a wonderful vehicle to work through," said Grover Norquist, president of the group and a key figure in Washington's conservative community.
"What the decision does is give guidance to a whole bunch of conservative donors that it is okay to give," said Brian McCabe, president of Progress for America. The FEC decided to put off until after the Nov. 2 elections attempts to regulate a network of mostly liberal organizations using unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and rich people -- soft money -- to help Kerry beat Bush.
In the jargon of the political community, these organizations are called "527s" and "501c4s," for the sections of the tax code that govern their activities.
Unlike political committees regulated by the FEC, 527s and 501c4s have no restriction on the sources or amount of contributions, and some have received gifts of $5 million or more. Federal candidates can accept only as much as $2,000 from an individual, and federal political action committees can accept a maximum of $5,000 from an individual.
Until the FEC ruling, corporations, one of the major contributors to conservative groups, were reluctant to give money to activities that were in a legal limbo. Conservatives contend that the ruling will open the corporate spigot.
"There have been donors who have been reluctant to give because they didn't know if this campaign was okay," said David Keating, executive director of the Club for Growth. "Now, the coast is clear. Everybody, come on in, the water's fine."
The Club for Growth is perhaps best positioned to take advantage of any outpouring of conservative money with only 51/2 months left in the campaign. The club has been active throughout the primary period, and has no start-up problems setting up a structure to receive money, to organize fundraising and to work out contracts with ad makers and other vendors.
In fact, the day before the FEC ruling, the Club for Growth began airing a pro-Bush ad in five battleground states. As the World Trade Center, the Statue of Liberty and Bush appear on the screen, an announcer says:
"The World Trade Center towers were more than just buildings. They were symbols of hard-working people, economic freedom and opportunity. . . . Our enemies want to destroy America's freedoms. President Bush is fighting terrorism to save lives and protect liberty."
In addition to start-up delays, another major hurdle faces any group taking corporate or union money that plans to run television ads. Under the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, during much of the period between now and the election, no corporate or union money can pay for ads that mention Kerry or Bush.
This prohibition covers both candidates for the 60 days before the election. For the period from June 26 to the end of the Democratic convention on July 29, the prohibition applies to ads mentioning Kerry; from July 31 to the end of the GOP convention on Sept. 2, to ads referring to Bush.