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Election 2004

Candidate names must come out of 'issue' ads

By Associated Press
Published December 12, 2003

WASHINGTON - Abortion rights, environmental and other lobbying groups running ads for or against President Bush or any of his Democratic rivals now have a choice to make: Either remove the candidate's name or pull the commercial from the airwaves.

The campaign finance law that the Supreme Court upheld Wednesday bans ads that mention candidates for federal office within 30 days of a primary election and 60 days of a general election if they are paid for with "soft money."

The huge, unlimited donations from corporations, unions and individuals typically are used to broadcast so-called "issue" ads, which critics say are really intended to sway voters just before an election and often include sharp critiques of candidates.

The restrictions kick in Sunday, 30 days before the District of Columbia's nonbinding presidential primary. They next take effect Dec. 20 in Iowa, which holds its caucuses Jan. 19, and Dec. 28 in New Hampshire, where the primary is Jan. 27. They also apply to House and Senate races.

"If they want to truly talk issues at the end of a presidential primary campaign, fine," said Meredith McGehee, executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a campaign finance watchdog. "But the law says they can't do what they've done in the past - pretend it's issue discussion when it's obviously meant to promote a particular candidate."

The limits do not apply to the candidates themselves, which means that anyone running for president or another federal office could name a rival in a spot airing within days of an election.

Because of the restrictions, interest groups - including some formed specifically to collect the kind of big-money donations needed to finance these ads - already have spent more than $4-million to broadcast commercials against presidential candidates.

It's possible such groups won't run ads at all in the weeks leading up to these early contests. But it's more likely they will run ads with messages tailored to drive grass-roots efforts and further party agendas.

"They won't name specific candidates or races, but they will promote the idea of finding out where candidates stand on the issues," said Evan Tracey of Campaign Media Analysis Group.

Such ads, though generic, could still influence campaigns. "Those kinds of ads will benefit the candidates who share that ideological point of view," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.

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