Top Republican operatives have launched an effort to compete with Democratic groups for large sums of unregulated presidential campaign funds by designating a group with close ties to the Bush administration to serve as the main conduit.

Republicans who once vigorously opposed the fundraising and spending activities of mostly liberal groups who have been working to defeat President Bush are developing ambitious plans to raise unregulated "soft money" before the November election. The Federal Election Commission earlier this month cleared the way for liberal groups to continue raising millions in unrestricted contributions, and now GOP groups are joining in.

James Francis Jr., who put together the 1999 to 2000 Bush Pioneers, one of the most successful fundraising operations in U.S. history, has been asked to chair the lead GOP organization, called Progress for America (PFA), Francis and other Republican activists said yesterday.

Officials of the organization indicated they are actively considering major purchases of television ads in roughly 18 key battleground states that praise Bush administration policies. PFA and other conservative organizations are vowing to match or exceed fundraising by liberal groups that did not wait for FEC clearance, and which have spent millions to elect the Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).

Unlike political committees regulated by the FEC, "527" and "501(c)(4)" groups -- named for the sections of the tax code that govern their activities -- have no restrictions on the sources or amount of contributions, and some have received gifts of $5 million or more.

Tom Synhorst, a direct-mail and phone-bank specialist, is a key strategic adviser to PFA. He is a partner in a direct mail and voter contact firm that has major contracts with both the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign and the Republican National Committee. Brian McCabe is the executive director.

The backers of PFA are working at top speed to revitalize and change the legal structure of the organization in order to capitalize on the FEC's May 13 decision to postpone adoption of rules governing the soft-money activities of "527" organizations.

Such Democratic groups as the Media Fund, America Coming Together and MoveOn.org have been active for well over a year and have already put in excess of $50 million into efforts to defeat Bush and elect Kerry. Their goal is to spend roughly $300 million.

Before the FEC action, both the Republican National Committee and the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign had argued that the expenditure of soft money to influence the presidential election is illegal, violating federal campaign finance law.

The May 13 decision forced a reversal of that stance and has opened the door to what appears sure to be a fundraising war between nominally independent organizations run by men and women with strong links to the parties and candidates.

This week's National Journal reported Francis's and Synhorst's involvement with PFA, along with James W. Cicconi, AT&T Corp.'s top Washington lobbyist.

Synhorst's company, Feather, Larson & Synhorst, has already been paid at least $1.6 million by the Bush-Cheney campaign. Tony Feather, the lead partner, was political director of the 2000 Bush campaign.

Feather founded PFA in 2001 but withdrew from the organization last year after receiving legal advice that his involvement with PFA and the Bush-Cheney campaign could violate federal laws barring coordination between the groups.

Synhorst, according to Feather, has separated himself from any involvement with the firm's work for either Bush or the RNC and will perform his work for PFA in what lawyers describe as a "silo" within the firm.

Francis said in an interview that he is undecided whether to become actively involved with PFA and he is awaiting legal advice. "I am not going to break the law, period, paragraph," he said. "I hope in the next week to get advice. If it's lawful, I may do it. If it's unclear or blurry, I probably won't."

In the 2000 campaign, Francis came up with the idea of calling those who raised at least $100,000 for Bush "Pioneers."

Francis said he raised some money for Bush early in the current campaign but has not been active since then because he knew that he might be needed in helping out a separate, "independent" campaign and it was important to keep his distance from Bush-Cheney '04.

McCabe said Francis and Cicconi are both PFA board members, along with C. Boyden Gray, White House counsel in the administration of George H.W. Bush, and Marilyn Ware, chairman of American Water in Pennsylvania. Ware has raised at least $100,000 for the current Bush-Chaney campaign and has qualified as a Pioneer. Francis said he has agreed to help but has not yet agreed to an official role.

PFA is currently a tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organization under the tax code and is not required to disclose either contributors or expenditures. Francis said PFA will be changed into a "527" organization that does list contributors and expenditures and can engage in a wider range of political activity than a 501(c)(4).

Feather set up PFA the year before Congress enacted the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law prohibiting the political parties from raising soft money.

PFA ran ads supporting Bush's agenda of tax cuts, conservative judicial nominees and energy legislation. McCabe said that from 2001 through 2003, PFA raised $2.1 million.