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America's Orphan

Whatever happened to campaign finance reform?

The day after Jon Corzine's $35 million victory in New Jersey's Democratic primary, the Democratic National Committee gave reporters an advance screening of the first installment of a $25 million TV ad campaign aimed at – guess what? – repositioning Al Gore.

The ad campaign is paid for with "soft money" - unlimited donations by corporations and individuals that do not have to be disclosed to federal election officials. Republicans, who are working on soft-money ads of their own, are taunting Gore for reneging on a promise not to shoot first.

Both parties set records recently for soft money raised in a single night, and are fast closing in on doubling their soft money fund-raising numbers for the last presidential election in 1996. The Democrats have already raised $77 million in soft money this year and the Republicans, $86 million. (To put those numbers in perspective, each party has raised more cash than the Backstreet Boys made last year.)

CBS News polling chief Kathy Frankovic says that when asked about campaign finance, voters are all for it. But the money issue finishes in the basement when voters are asked to rank their public policy concerns. And the obvious solution to campaign spending excess — public financing of campaigns — rarely gets even half of respondents' support.

The issue with this issue is that it's simply fallen off the radar.

"There is no question John McCain struck a chord with the American public," says Larry Makinson of the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that studies the role of money in politics.

"Part of that was McCain's personality," says Makinson , "but the other part was a sense of someone taking on the system. There has been a blandness to the campaign ever since the day McCain got out."

Campaign finance reform is a message wanting for a messenger. Once McCain was out, "both of the remaining candidates tried to take that mantle and wrap it around themselves," notes Makinson, "and I don’t think they convinced anyone."

Campaign spending is not a front-burner issue for Bush or Gore, and Makinson says neither of them wants too much focus on where they're getting their money. "You’ve got a situation where both candidates are taking money from people they'd rather not talk about."

With no high-profile, charismatic sponsor to apply heat, pols' enthusiasm for tinkering with the current system has cooled considerably.

An unscientific survey of the political parties, watchdog groups and a McCain spokesman, failed to identify even one congressional or gubernatorial candidate who's picked up McCain's banner and made campaign finance the cornerstone of his or her campaign.

Even McCain himself, who led a "crusade" against soft money, is campaigning for Republican candidates who do nosupport the dry-docked reform bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wi.

The so-called 527 loophole may be the next hill reformers try to take. Thanks to a provision in the election laws, individuals and organizations can place political ads that serve or hurt a candidate, without disclosing their identity or the source of the money that pays for the ad.

The issue has registered in the presidential race a few times already. During the primary season, an associate of Gov. Bush ran anti-McCain TV ads casting Bush as, of all things, an environmentalist; while the Sierra Club financed a series of ads attacking Bush's record on the environmental record.

But Makinson thinks most voters remain largely unaware of the problem. "It's impossible today to tell who's sending you the message - the candidate, the party or some third party group. When the light bulb goes on that there's a new loophole that allows Saddam Hussein, the Cali cartel or the mafia to put money into American elections…"

"The real danger," he says, is that "the next crop of politicians going to Washington will have more IOUs to more political investors than any Congress that's ever come to Washington. The real potential for mischief comes after the election when these (donors) try to collect on their investment."