So long, soft money

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There won't exactly be a going-out-of-business sale, but expected congressional passage of campaign reform will cause some marked changes in campaign ads starting next year, according to some people who study and use the ads.

Assuming the legislation passes court tests, one of the biggest changes will be for presidential candidates, who in 2000 used their own ads to send positive messages while using party money to run negative ads. Next time around, it's unlikely they will have party ads to rely on.

"The biggest change is that more of the ads will come from the candidates," said Amy Kauffman, director of campaign and election laws project at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank. She noted the campaign finance bill approved by the House last week doubles the amount an individual can contribute to a candidate, but blocks the use of larger "soft money" donations from corporations and others.

Craig Holman, senior policy analyst for the Brennan Institute in New York, who has extensively studied soft money spending, said candidates own ads are generally more positive, while half of party ads run with soft money are negative. Whether the changes will play out in ad content getting more positive isn't yet clear.

Corporations and labor unions may challenge the new law and even if the legislation is upheld, there's a chance party ads would simply be replaced with ads from "independent" committees. Seventy percent of the independent ads are negative, Mr. Holman said, but right now many of those are run within 60 days of an election, a restricted time period for ads under the new legislation. If the legislation goes through, independent ads using soft money would be barred for 60 days before an election. The researchers said the changes will be notable on all federal races, but could have the most dramatic effects on presidential races. There, party money has been used to run negative ads in the general election campaign and to help candidates who have spent all their money fighting primary races, primarily by running ads in the period between the last primary and the convention.

"You may see a movement in money from parties to groups. They will become independent battle machines, acting like political parties used to be," said John Samples, an analyst at the Cato Institute.

None of the analysts predicted parties would go out this year and spend more using soft money in the hope their messages would linger through 2004.

"I'm not sure that political advertising works that way," said Seth Arngott, communications director for Common Cause, who said his group is hopeful the changes will take federal office holders out of the business of raising unlimited money from unions, corporations and wealthy individuals.

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