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Political ads and hypocrites

It borders on the hilarious for Jeb Bush and the Florida Republican Party to be accusing anyone else of taking liberties with the campaign finance law. On the same day the Republicans formally charged that television spots sponsored by the teachers' union represent an illegal contribution to Democrat Bill McBride, the GOP unleashed a questionable ad of its own.

Its 30-second ad slamming McBride and Janet Reno exploits the infamous "three-pack" loophole the Republicans slipped into law several years ago. This lets the parties launder unlimited sums of special-interest soft money into propaganda for a single candidate, provided that at least two other members of the party's ticket are mentioned, however fleetingly. In this instance, the ad disparaging Bush's leading Democratic opponents briefly mentions Tom Gallagher and Charles Bronson, Republican candidates for chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner, but its content focuses entirely on the governor's race.

On the merits, the ad is ridiculous and bodes poorly for the quality of the ensuing campaign. Neither Reno nor McBride has done a "song and dance" on the death penalty or school grading. Both have been specifically critical of Bush for using the FCAT test to grade schools. Reno has said she personally opposes the death penalty but consistently sought it, as the law provides, when she was a state prosecutor. McBride has said he supports the death penalty but wants a moratorium for the sake of adopting safeguards against executing the innocent.

The Democrats will undoubtedly resort to three-pack ads after the primary, though with far less corporate cash in their till, they will not be able to make as much use of them. Bush, meanwhile, will benefit from uncountable millions spent on three-pack ads while ostensibly respecting _ but in fact flouting _ the voluntary spending limits that apply directly to the governor's race.

That said, the Florida Education Association is walking an extremely fine line in maintaining that its 30-second spots address an "issue," as federal and state laws permit, rather than promoting McBride's candidacy, which would arguably violate Florida's $500 limit on direct contributions to a campaign. The difference hinges on the absence of so-called advocacy words such as "elect" or "vote for," though the Republicans will claim that the phrase "endorsed by the FEA" constitutes advocacy, too. In practical terms, it is a meaningless semantic quibble. The ad's transparent purpose is to give McBride what he needs more than anything else at this juncture: name recognition in his primary campaign against a better-known opponent. It also stresses one of his signature issues, reducing class size in schools. But the ad does not abuse the spirit of the election law to any greater extent than Bush's three-pack ads do.

Though McBride and his campaign maintain they had nothing to do with the FEA ad, the union and the campaign reportedly employ the same consultant. Here again, however, the Republicans have a glass-house problem. Connie Mack's 34,518-vote victory over Kenneth "Buddy" MacKay in the 1988 U.S. Senate race followed a last-minute advertising blitz by an auto dealers' political committee that spent nearly $400,000 attacking the Democrat. Noting that the PAC and Mack shared an advertising firm and a political consultant, the Democratic Party charged that the attack ads were a coordinated rather than an independent expenditure, hence illegal. The Federal Elections Commission dismissed the complaint, and so did a federal court.

If there's any lesson from all of this, it's that state campaign finance laws urgently need clarification and strengthening. The three-pack loophole is a mockery; in its place, parties perhaps might be allowed to advertise for a single candidate or, on an equal basis, for their entire slate subject to a reasonable limit that quantifies the sum spent on each. Independent committees such as the teachers could be allowed to do the same, without any folderol over what constitutes "issues" or "advocacy," provided that the sources of their money are clearly identified. Soft-money should be capped at levels far below the $500,000 that the Florida cruise ship industry has given to the party of the governor whose veto threat killed a proposed Miami port tax.

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