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WASHINGTON TODAY: Campaign finance overhaul elicits public yawn

By Donald M. Rothberg, Associated Press, 06/29/98 01:12

WASHINGTON (AP) - Disclosure of shoddy fund-raising practices by both parties made campaign finance reform a hot issue early this year. But it now is clear that Congress cannot agree on meaningful change and the public does not much care.

Most members of Congress are in their home districts for the July Fourth recess and few are likely to encounter any demands that they do something about the way political money is raised and spent.

``It comes at the bottom of the list of things that people want,'' said Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. ``Their eyes glaze over when they look at particular solutions.''

Money proved too powerful for the forces that tried to curb its influence in politics. So too did a public cynicism fed by the perception that the elected officials who raise and spend that money won't do anything to change the system.

``There's more cynicism than I've ever seen,'' said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a principal architect of the campaign legislation that died in the Senate early this year, victim of a Republican filibuster.

Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, who joined with former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, R-Kan., in seeking public support for change in campaign laws, said they encountered a mood ``somewhere between cynicism and lack of optimism about the possibility of reform.''

President Clinton spoke out strongly on the need for new campaign finance laws and endorsed the bill pushed by McCain and Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis.

``There is no substitute for strong, bipartisan campaign finance reform legislation passed by the Congress,'' the president said. But his advocacy of reform was somewhat diminished by awareness that some of the worst abuses took place in Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign.

McCain also was in the forefront of the failed effort to pass broad legislation to toughen regulation of tobacco and discourage smoking by teen-agers. That, too, was a victim of money, although McCain said it was not necessarily political money.

The Arizona senator said major credit for the defeat of the tobacco bill should go to the $41 million advertising campaign by the industry. Ads portrayed the legislation as a huge tax increase rather than an effective means of curbing smoking.

Frank Newport of the Gallup Organization said polling last week found only 36 percent of people saying the tobacco bill should have passed and 44 percent saying it should not have.

In an indication of the effectiveness of the industry advertising campaign, the Gallup survey found 50 percent agreeing that the measure was ``mostly a bill to provide money for government spending by raising taxes.'' Forty-one percent thought it was intended to reduce teen smoking.

Newport said campaign finance and tobacco are ``recessed issues'' - matters that if you remind people about them ``they'll say something ought to be done.''

But ask those same people what issues matter the most to them, and campaign finance overhaul is rarely mentioned.

One reason for the failure of both tobacco and campaign finance legislation was the lack of a clear perception by the public that the proposals were the right approach.

``I don't think there's agreement even on the nature of the problem,'' said Gans, the student of voting trends. ``I don't believe money is as evil as people claim.''

Strict limits on contributions ``advantage millionaires and people with large Rolodexes'' who can raise huge sums of money, he said.

But McCain refuses to give up.

``There will be more scandals, there will be more revelations,'' he said. ``It's not going to go away.''

EDITOR'S NOTE: Donald M. Rothberg directs the AP's congressional staff.

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