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Cash raised, finger pointed

Another day in paradise. The brilliant sun burns away the early morning clouds. The blue Atlantic Ocean sparkles. The only sounds are a gentle sea breeze and the "wock" of tennis balls.

There are two visible signs that something is out of the ordinary at the Ritz-Carlton. A few hundred yards out to sea, vessels of the Coast Guard stand patiently watching, guarding against . . . against what? U-boat attack?

Back on shore, the resort's manicured, expansive lawns are dotted with grim, dark-suited men in sunglasses, each standing in his assigned spot, unmoving, unsmiling. Human topiaries. President Clinton and Vice President Gore were here this weekend. They came to meet with donors who paid $50,000 to the Democratic National Committee for the privilege.

Inside the hotel, a flawlessly polite staff caters to every whim. Staffers may not point. They must escort you to your requested destination, past the fine shops and restaurants, the fitness center, the indoor and outdoor pools, down the red sidewalks and through the gardens. Rooms run between $200 and $500 a night, although if you're interested in getting away from the riff-raff, you can pay up to $1,500.

What do $50,000 donors look like? Not like fat cats, but pretty much like regular folks. Most showed up in sport shirts and weekend dresses, slacks and loafers, even a pair of blue jeans here and there. Half the meals were self-serve buffets. If you've coughed up more than the average American's yearly salary to hang out with the president, maybe you don't feel the further need to impress.

Both parties have come to Florida this year to prove that they have no shame. First the Republicans at the Breakers in Palm Beach, and now the Democrats here on Amelia Island, gathered defiantly to rake in as much cash as possible. It is, they say, the American way.

Each kettle calls the other black.

The Republicans say that, hey, at least we do it legally. The Democrats say, at least our donors care about little kids and the future, instead of fat cat tax breaks. At least we've limited our contributions to $100,000 from any one source. But the American people are numb to it. They throw up their hands and say, "They're all crooks."

It is time to see clearly.

Forget what the parties say about each other. Think for yourself. Let's break down the money involved in federal elections into three pots:

Illegal money.

Traditional money.

Loophole money.

We have heard a lot about "illegal" money. The Democrats took a lot of it in 1996 _ about $3-million, the party admits so far, from foreign or improper sources.

So, investigate. Prosecute. Send the people responsible to jail, if you want. But understand that illegal money was less than 1 percent of the Democrats' total spending. The other 99 percent was for the same kind of stuff the Republicans did.

By "traditional" money, I mean contributions directly to candidates, PACs or political parties, under legal limits, to pay for specific campaigns. This is commonly called "hard" money. We used to think this was the way to buy influence, but these days it looks almost quaint.

This leaves us with the loopholes, the hot action. Many people in the system object to the word "loophole." Phooey. Modern practice has twisted the intent of our quarter-century-old law beyond recognition. There are three main loopholes:

+ "Soft" money is not spent directly on a campaign, but on "party building." Originally this meant stuff like sending out postcards reminding people to vote. But the parties today rake in hundreds of millions, often from big corporations. Soft money has no legal limit.

+ "Independent" spending originally referred to citizens or groups who spent their own money in a campaign. There is supposed to be no coordination with a candidate. But independent spending has become a back-door way to evade legal limits. What's more, the U.S. Supreme Court last year opened the door to unlimited "independent" spending by political parties themselves.

+ "Issue" spending is made to support or oppose a particular cause, such as a bill in Congress. But both sides _ most publicly, the AFL-CIO last year _ gleefully ran attacks on each other before the election. They are thinly veiled campaign commercials, with no legal limit.

Plenty of smart people say we need to write stronger laws to tighten these loopholes. Other smart people say more laws will just lead to more loopholes, that we should focus on educating the public about where the existing money comes from.

We are capable of shaking off our resignation and deciding these questions intelligently. But it seems less and less likely, here on Amelia Island as it did in Palm Beach, that we can do it within the framework of the major parties. Help us, the parties call out, because we can't stop ourselves. It is the cry of the addict, the abuser, the denier. They come to Florida again and again to repeat the cycle and then say to the rest of us: Look what you made us do.