WASHINGTON - The White House has adopted a more aggressive defense against critics who say that President Clinton illegally ran two campaigns for his re-election in 1996, the official Clinton-Gore '96 campaign and another one funded through the Democratic Party.
Critics say Clinton's close direction of advertising by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was part of an effort to subvert spending limits that went with government financing of the Clinton-Gore campaign.
For months, the White House has generally issued blanket statements that everything Clinton did in 1996 was legal.
On Thursday, White House counsel Lanny Davis took a different tack. He conceded that Clinton, in effect, managed the DNC's $44 million ad campaign and said that there was nothing wrong with that.
Davis' defense followed criticism from Republicans on Thursday of a White House videotape that showed Clinton socializing with big-money donors in May 1996. On the tape, Clinton tells the donors, who gave large sums to the DNC, that the DNC ad campaign "has been central to the position I now enjoy in the polls."
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Clinton's comment proves that he broke an election-law ban on using DNC ads paid for with "soft money" to benefit his own campaign.
"Soft money" refers to unlimited contributions that are supposed to be used only for party-building activities, such as airing "issue" ads that promote a party's ideas or values. Soft money may not be used for ads that advocate the election or defeat of a specific federal candidate.
Specter and other critics say that in essentially running two campaigns against Republican Bob Dole, Clinton broke an agreement he signed when he accepted federal money for his re-election race. He agreed to spend only $62 million in exchange for getting the same amount in taxpayer funds.
The DNC spent at least $44 million on its ads, which ran in the early phase of Clinton's campaign and helped him solidify his lead in the polls.
Specter said Clinton's acknowledgment that the ads were helping his standing in the polls "locks up the contention" that he illegally increased the amount he could spend by personally directing efforts to use DNC soft money on the ads.
Davis said federal law allows candidates to coordinate their ads with soft-money advertising by the party, as long as the party's ads don't explicitly urge viewers to elect or defeat a certain candidate.
Months ago, Clinton suggested he had little to do with what he called "the other campaign."
But his media strategist, Dick Morris, later wrote that Clinton was deeply involved in the DNC ads. He approved every ad script, sometimes rewrote them, chose the visuals and decided when and where the ads would run.
Last year, Common Cause, a group advocating campaign-finance reform, demanded the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate.
Fred Wertheimer, former president of the group, said Thursday that "Mr. Davis is wrong and is blowing smoke. The evidence shows the DNC was simply a conduit here. This was a sham, and the Republicans did it, too."
By Mimi Hall, USA TODAY