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Pols Debate Meaning of March 31

First-Quarter Campaign Finance Reports May Be Very Lean

With a war looming in Iraq and the vast majority of the political world still sifting through the new rules and regulations of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, fundraisers are warning that candidates’ March 31 quarterly filings with the Federal Election Commission are not likely to wow.

“The problem is there just isn’t as much money being given as in the past,” said Republican fundraiser Matt Keelen. “There have been a lot of hearty swings at the plate and a lot of misses.”

The dilemma is twofold: Not only are most Congressional candidates and incumbents unfamiliar with a quarterly filing requirement in nonelection years — one of the myriad changes the legislation made —but many organizations, especially political action committees, have little money left to dole out.

A number of people interviewed for this article said that Members who voted for the legislation knew little of the intricacies of the campaign finance law, which included two additional filing periods in an off-year.

“A lot of these Members didn’t know they had a March 31 filing deadline,” cracked one Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The lack of giving from the PAC community has made it difficult to collect large sums for even the most vulnerable Members — including freshmen.

“Small to medium-size PACs are out of business for the first few months of an off-year,” said Bob Doyle, a principal in Sutter’s Mill, a Democratic fundraising operation. “The real attention will turn to the more serious fundraising that will go into the June reports.”

In years past, the end-of-June filing was used as a key gauge in determining targets for both parties.

“The March 31 reports will not be able to rise to the level of importance that June 30 and Dec. 31 have,” Doyle said.

Doyle’s prediction does not apply to the nine candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, however.

Among these campaigns there is an acknowledgement that not only how much they have raised but also where and how they spend it will be closely scrutinized.

“This is a test but not necessarily the most important test that will happen this presidential cycle,” said Jano Cabrera, spokesman for Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.). “It is an early test of one of the skills needed to run and win.”

Erik Smith, a spokesman for Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), said “this is a very important test” and it would be “insincere” for any candidate to argue otherwise.

Smith, noted that the June 30 deadline may do more to separate the wheat from the chaff in the presidential field.

“The first quarter is the price of admission,” he said, “but the second quarter will separate the serious players.”

For the campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D), the issue is not how much money he has raised in the first three months of the year, but the number and geographical balance of contributions he has received.

“It may not be that we will have the deepest pockets but we will demonstrate a breadth of support,” said Rick Ridder, Dean’s campaign manager. “Howard Dean is not a regional candidate.”

A variety of fundraisers with House and Senate clients said it is unlikely that a mediocre showing in the March report would doom a candidate’s chance at re-election.

“We have had discussions with all of our clients about March 31,” said Democratic fundraiser Tom Erickson. “Neither committee is going to have their stuff together [by the deadline] to figure out who is vulnerable and who is strong.”

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) said the first-quarter numbers were “not particularly relevant” to his targeting plans. “June 30 is a bigger benchmark,” he added.

A Republican leadership aide disagreed.

“Democrats and Republicans that are not raising money are hanging a target on their forehead,” the aide said. “Republicans are urging every Member to raise money at as brisk a pace as they can.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee is exerting significant pressure on vulnerable freshmen to show a strong number on March 31, according to numerous sources.

There are more than 120 fundraising events for Republican House Members this month listed on the NRCC’s Web site.

Included among them are five for Rep. Tom Feeney (Fla.), who won the potentially competitive 24th district with 62 percent. Georgia Reps. Max Burns and Phil Gingrey, both of whom won Democratic-leaning districts in 2002, each have two events scheduled this month.

“For folks who won with less than 52 or 53 percent there is more intensity” in the final days of the reporting period, said GOP fundraiser Carolyn Machado.

Democrats have 17 House incumbents under the 53 percent marker; Republicans have 13.

PACs, which have typically formed the financial backbone for vulnerable freshmen, are still in the formative stages of their planning for 2004, and many have very little money left over from the 2002 election.

“PACs are replenishing and they have to spend their time getting their members organized,” Erickson said. Most PACs will not have their first board meeting to discuss the 2004 election until June.

“My clients are trying to respect that timetable,” said Machado, who admits that her hands-off philosophy may be the exception, not the rule.

Regardless of their political stripes, all of the fundraisers agreed that the new deadline makes their lives considerably more difficult.

“The law has not accomplished what it set out to do,” said Keelen. “Instead of having people setting up their offices and dealing with constituent concerns, they are raising money.”

Erickson recalls a time when following an election he wouldn’t speak to his clients again until March. “Now I am doing events in December,” he said. “There is never any break.”

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