WASHINGTON The Supreme Court's campaign finance ruling gives the Republicans, who raise far more in small donations, a big advantage in next year's elections for the White House and Congress.
Democrats will have to try to make up the difference through outside groups exempt from most of the new restrictions.
Several Democratic-leaning groups are already in action, raising millions in corporate, union and unlimited ''soft money'' donations that the national parties can no longer accept under the new law.
With an eye toward unseating President Bush and taking control of Congress, they plan to finance the get-out-the-vote drives and political issue ads that their party has underwritten in the past with large soft money checks.
Republican activists had largely held off on forming new outside groups, waiting to learn the law's fate while the GOP and Bush built a commanding advantage in raising the limited donations permitted under the law. With the justices' ruling, Republicans are now aiming to match the Democratic soft-money groups dollar-for-dollar.
''If the other side is going to raise tens of millions of dollars in soft money and if the Supreme Court says it's OK to spend that on political activity, then we would be foolish not to play by the same rules,'' said Frank Donatelli, a GOP consultant and co-founder of Americans for a Better Country, a pro-Bush group. The group is vetting its plans with the Federal Election Commission before going ahead.
Meanwhile, congressional and presidential candidates and the national political parties must abide by the new restrictions that took effect after the 2002 elections and now have been upheld by the high court after months of legal uncertainty.
The law lets candidates collect twice as much from each individual donor $2,000 as they could in the last election.
''It has forced elected officials to reach out to more people for smaller contributions,'' said Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., a sponsor of the campaign finance law who along with his colleagues must run for re-election next year.
Republicans have long raised more than Democrats in so-called hard money donations, which come from individuals and political action committees and are limited in size. But Democrats made a push in the 1990s to narrow the gap by raising corporate and union donations aggressively. The GOP also raised lots of soft money.
With that gone, Republicans enjoy an instant advantage.
The Republican National Committee and its Senate and House counterparts together raised $173 million in hard money through the first 10 months of the year, compared to just $75 million for the three national Democratic committees.
Bush has already raised more than $100 million for his re-election, compared with the top Democratic presidential fund-raiser, Howard Dean, who had about $25 million at the end of September.
''Today's ruling breaks the Democrats' back,'' National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Tom Reynolds boasted.
Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe disagreed, saying his push to enlist more small donors is paying off.
The DNC has gone from 400,000 direct-mail donors to more than 1 million over the past several months, and has eliminated its debt.
''I'm sitting here with $10 million in the bank,'' McAuliffe said. ''We have transformed the DNC from a soft money committee to a hard money committee.''
McAuliffe said he intends to raise $185 million for get-out-the-vote drives and other activities in presidential swing states. That's the same amount the DNC had to back 2000 nominee Al Gore, but now it must do without the $105 million in soft money it had then
Special-interest groups also must operate under new rules. In the month before a primary and the two months before an election, they cannot use corporate or union money for ads targeting candidates.
Groups whose finances include corporate and union money say they'll still find ways to play a part in next year's elections.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says it will spend on phone banks and direct mail, among other activities. The AFL-CIO has said the law won't prevent it from spending millions trying to get its members to the polls.
The National Rifle Association plans to ask each of its 4 million members to give at least $20 to its political action committee, money it could use for direct candidate support, including ads calling for candidates' election or defeat.
''It's not going to shut us up,'' NRA executive director Wayne LaPierre said of Wednes-day's ruling. ''And we're up to the task, so stay tuned.''
But with the legal issues now settled by the Supreme Court, the big test of the new system will occur with the new outside soft money groups that are cropping up.
''I think it clearly underscores the need to do what we're doing,'' said Harold Ickes, a former Clinton White House official who has formed one such group called the Media Fund which intends to raise $10 million to help elect Democrats next year.
Sharon Theimer covers political fund raising and special-interest lobbying in Washington.
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