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Conservatives Slam McCain

Sen. John McCain's supporters suggest criticism of his latest campaign finance reform plan could end up boosting his presidential campaign.

Americans for Tax Reform, Christian Coalition, National Rifle Association and others on Monday denounced the bill co-written by McCain and Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis. as an attack on free speech. The group planned a similar rally Tuesday in South Carolina, where McCain also has campaigned heavily.

Peter Spaulding, a member of the senator's executive council, said the attempt to tarnish McCain could end up helping him by serving as an example of the special interests McCain stands up to. He joked that he'd be willing to pay to bring the group back.

"I think with their performance today, they are one of the best arguments we have for campaign finance reform," he said. "The bus tickets are ready any time."

"These Washington lobbyists come to New Hampshire to discredit campaign finance reform and to protect their own six and seven-digit salaries," Spaulding said. "These Washington special interest groups can spend unlimited amounts of money anonymously... they call it their right. I call it spreading rumors and lies."

The bill would ban "soft money" -- unlimited donations that corporations, labor unions and some individuals give to political parties. It also would limit the ability of unions to use compulsory fees from nonmembers to further political efforts.

Carol Tobias, political director for the National Right to Life Committee, accused the sponsors of offering a watered-down version of their earlier bill with hopes of making it more restrictive later.

"The 'McCain Lite' version of the bill introduced this week is simply a vehicle for amendments that contain the speech-suppressive provisions of the previous iterations of McCain-Feingold," she said.

She said the soft money ban would end up preventing groups like hers from discussing issues.

"If the Republican Party can't talk about its positions on various issues, or the Democratic Party can't, why should any group be able to?" she said. "We firmly believe that if the ban on soft money is passed, we're next."

The sponsors dropped a provision that would have restricted "issue advocacy" advertisements by outside groups within 60 days of an election. Any organization running such ads during that time would be required to disclose who paid for the ads.

The conservative groups said they expect the advertising regulations to reappear as an amendment to the bill.

A group of campaign finance reform supporters attended the conservative group's news conference, wearing stickers that said "79 percent" -- a reference to a recent poll showing 79 percent of New Hampshire voters want reform. An hour later, Spaudling and other McCain supporters had their own news conference to defend the bill.

Spaulding said McCain's message has resonated with New Hampshire Republicns.

"In the past, campaign finance reform has been sort of an academic issue. What Senator McCain has been able to do is explain how the current system prevents any type of change from any side," he said. "Whether you're interested in health care, education or military reform, special interests control the agenda."

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