WASHINGTON – Abortion rights (search), environmental and other lobbying groups running ads for or against President Bush or any of his Democratic rivals now have a choice to make: Either remove the candidate's name or pull the commercial from the airwaves.
The campaign finance law (search) that the Supreme Court upheld Wednesday bans ads that mention candidates for federal office within 30 days of a primary election and 60 days of a general election if they are paid for with "soft money."
The huge, unlimited donations from corporations, unions and individuals typically are used to broadcast so-called "issue ads," which critics say are really intended to sway voters just before an election and often include sharp critiques of candidates.
The restrictions kick in Sunday, 30 days before the District of Columbia's nonbinding presidential primary. They next take effect Dec. 20 in Iowa, which holds its caucuses Jan. 19, and Dec. 28 in New Hampshire, where the primary is Jan. 27. They also apply to House and Senate races.
"If they want to truly talk issues at the end of a presidential primary campaign, fine," said Meredith McGehee, executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns (search), a campaign finance watchdog. "But the law says they can't do what they've done in the past -- pretend it's issue discussion when it's obviously meant to promote a particular candidate."
Interest groups can use unlimited individual donations on ads targeting candidates at any time as long as the groups are unincorporated and keep the individual money used for the ads separate from any union or corporate money they collect. The restrictions also do not apply to the candidates themselves, which means that anyone running for president or another federal office could name a rival in a spot airing within days of an election.
Because of the restrictions, interest groups -- including some formed specifically to collect the kind of big-money donations needed to finance these ads -- already have spent more than $4 million to broadcast commercials against presidential candidates.
Most of the ads now on the airwaves, by groups such as liberal-leaning MoveOn.org (search), criticize Bush by name and take him to task for his economic, military and environmental policies.
Ads naming Democratic candidates began popping up last week.
The conservative Club for Growth aired an ad in Iowa and New Hampshire faulting Democratic front-runner Howard Dean for calling for the repeal of Bush's tax cuts. A group called Americans for Jobs, Healthcare and Progressive Values (search) broadcast a commercial saying Dean and Bush had received the National Rifle Association's highest marks for their stances on gun ownership.
It's possible that such groups won't run ads at all in the weeks leading up to these early contests. Or they could broadcast commercials simply to spark public discussion of issues such as education or health care. But it's more likely that they will run ads with messages tailored to Democratic or Republican ideals to drive grass-roots efforts and further party agendas.
"They won't name specific candidates or races, but they will promote the idea of finding out where candidates stand on the issues," said Evan Tracey, president of Campaign Media Analysis Group (search), which tracks campaign ads. "They'll say stuff like 'Ask a teacher, ask a gun owner, ask a senior citizen what candidates support X, Y and Z issues."'
Such ads, though generic, could still influence campaigns.
"Those kinds of ads will benefit the candidates who share that ideological point of view," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.
She noted that the pharmaceutical industry helped Bush in 2000 by spending millions on ads that mirrored the Republican agenda without mentioning Bush or Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore.
The Sierra Club (search) has spent at least $350,000 on ads in New Hampshire, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, Nevada and Nebraska, highlighting what it says are flaws in Bush's environmental record.
But Margaret Conway, the group's political director, said the Sierra Club hasn't decided whether to run ads simply discussing environmental issues in the weeks before the presidential primaries.
"Strategically it's not really clear that ads that don't name candidates will be helpful or informative during that period for us," Conway said.
In any case, few expect to see a crush of interest-group ads on the airwaves in New Hampshire or Iowa that name Bush or any Democrats before the restrictions kick in. Airtime in these states is in hot demand -- by presidential candidates eager to promote themselves or criticize their rivals.