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GOP Activists Work Rich Donors

Have a million bucks to spare? If so, Republicans may want to pass the hat your way.

Unaccustomed to playing catch-up in the game of big money politics, GOP activists are struggling to persuade wealthy donors to write seven-figure checks to new outside political groups they want to use to help wage political ad wars this election year.

Democrats, led by billionaire George Soros (search), are already way ahead. Fund-raisers and donors say distrust of the new groups, uncertainty about the law and a general complacency created by President Bush's record fund raising have complicated the Republican search.

"They don't seem to exist, or they're afraid to come forward," David Keating, executive director of the Club for Growth (search) conservative anti-tax group, said of $1 million-plus GOP donors. "We're certainly going to work to try to change it."

The big wrinkle is the campaign finance law that took effect this election cycle and outlawed a practice that had become common - donors writing six-figure or larger checks to the political parties.

Some donors simply are uneasy or distrustful of giving the same amounts to relatively unknown tax-exempt political groups even though they are the only ones permitted under the law to accept corporate, union or large donations known as "soft money."

"Our guys are businesspeople and businesspeople by nature are conservative with their money," said Republican fund-raiser Matt Keelen.

Arkansas businessman Jackson "Steve" Stephens (search) said another consideration for GOP-leaning chief executives is how their corporate boards of directors may react to political activism involving groups far less known than the political parties.

"Because you have customers, and customers may or may not like the political leanings of the people that they do business with," said Stephens, chief executive of the Arkansas-based ExOxEmis biomedical company.

Even under the old law, the GOP had more success with small donors and was less adept at attracting large individual checks, though they raised more money overall than the Democratic Party.

Twenty of 24 people who gave $1 million or more to national parties in the last election gave to the Democratic Party, an analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (search) found. In 2000, Democrats accounted for five of the six seven-figure givers.

When the latest law shifted big money from the parties to outside groups, Democrats got a running start, thanks in part to $1 million-plus donors such as Soros.

Two groups, the Media Fund (search) and MoveOn.org (search), argue that as long as they avoid urging viewers to vote for or against a candidate, they can use unlimited individual donations to run ads promoting Democratic nominee-to-be John Kerry or attacking Bush anytime without violating the law.

The two groups this month planned at least $8 million in ads criticizing Bush, countering Bush's first wave of ads. Though they cannot coordinate with Kerry, their efforts provided him some breathing room as he works to rebuild his campaign fund after the primaries.

The Bush campaign and GOP argue the spending is illegal and want the Federal Election Commission to crack down. Some conservatives say the legal uncertainty is one factor inhibiting potential donors.

Craig Shirley, co-founder of the new pro-Bush Americans for a Better Country (search), said wealthy Republicans also may think there's no need to give to groups like his when Bush has raised a record $163 million for his own campaign, enjoying a 4-to-1 advantage over Kerry.

Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association's executive vice president, said there's also a basic difference between the parties' donor bases playing out.

Democratic money is largely cause-driven, so it is easy to move into non-party groups supporting the same causes, LaPierre said. Big GOP money is harder to move because it is more party-driven, "more social-driven in terms of events and being a good member" of the Republican Party, he said.

"You're moving the money from what they're comfortable giving to into something they're not comfortable to give to," LaPierre said.