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Ballot Push Linked To "Swift Boat" Backers

Lawyers behind a California ballot proposal that could benefit the 2008 Republican presidential nominee have ties to a Texas homebuilder who financed attacks on Democrat John Kerry's Vietnam War record in the 2004 presidential campaign.

Charles H. Bell and Thomas Hiltachk's law firm banked nearly $65,000 in fees from a California-based political committee funded almost solely by Bob J. Perry that targeted Democrats in 2006. Perry, a major Republican donor, contributed nearly $4.5 million to the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that made unsubstantiated but damaging attacks on Kerry three years ago.

Hiltachk has been pushing a proposal to revamp the way California awards its electoral votes, a change Democrats claim would rig the 2008 race. He and Bell are the sole officers of a new political committee, Californians for Equal Representation, that is raising money to place the plan on the ballot in June.

Their success could hinge on whether they get the financial backing to collect more than 400,000 petition signatures needed to qualify the proposal for the ballot. And while Perry has not donated to their cause, his wealth and connections make him a potential financier for a drive that could cost more than $1 million. Running a statewide campaign would cost millions more.

Democrats are working to defeat the effort and already have lined up supporters such as Hollywood producer Stephen Bing.

Supporters say the vote-change plan could open a new era of fairness in presidential contests. But the law firm's link to Perry and other Republican candidates and causes will make it difficult to separate the proposal from partisan politics.

Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk is one of the most politically involved law firms in the state. According to a news story on its Web site, Bell keeps a life-sized cardboard image of President Bush in his office.

The push to alter the division of electoral votes in California - a change with national implications - "is nothing more than an attempt by right-wing Republicans to change the rules in ways that benefits them," said Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party.

The fight over California's electoral votes is shaping up as an important subplot in the national campaign.

Like most states, California awards all 55 of its electoral votes to the statewide winner in presidential elections - the largest single prize in the nation.

Under the ballot proposal, the statewide winner would get only two electoral votes. The rest would be distributed to the winning candidate in each of the state's congressional districts.

In effect that would create 53 races, each with one electoral vote up for grabs. President Bush carried 22 of those districts in 2004, while losing the statewide vote by double digits.

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