WASHINGTON – With the Bush-Cheney re-election team going on the offensive over campaign practices of John Kerry (search), the president's supporters say the Massachusetts senator's campaign is acting in direct conflict to his so-called support for campaign finance reforms that went into effect in 2002.
"The hypocrisy here of the Kerry campaign is astounding. These are folks who talked about campaign finance reform ... and so we passed this reform, and what do they do? They set up these shadow party organizations ... that are running ads all over the country," Sen.. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., told Fox News on Thursday.
"Democrats aren't abiding by the spirit of the law ... they are trying to dupe the U.S. public into thinking they are the party of reform when they are the party of special interests," he said.
But Democrats counter that President Bush's campaign and the GOP are "playing politics with the law" by suggesting that Kerry's campaign is illegally coordinating political messages on the airwaves and get-out-the-vote activities with independent groups.
On Thursday, the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign and Republican National Committee (search) said they would file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (search) accusing Kerry and independent pro-Kerry groups known as 527s of violating a campaign law that broadly bans the use of "soft money" — corporate, union and unlimited individual donations — to influence federal elections.
But even as it files a complaint, the RNC is asking the FEC to step away from the issue of 527s and allow the RNC to take the question to court.
Kerry campaign senior adviser Michael Meehan denied any collaboration.
“Bush and the Republicans have taken March Madness and April Foolishness to new levels. This frivolous complaint is not worth the paper it is written on," Meehan said. “John Kerry and his campaign have nothing to do with these ads or the groups that run them."
Kerry campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter accused Republicans of political gamesmanship.
"We take the law very seriously. Republicans can't stand the fact the American people want change, so now they are playing politics with the law," Cutter said.
"I pledge to you that when I am president, I will do everything in my power to reduce the influence of big money in American politics and put the American people back in charge," Kerry said from the campaign trail in Massachusetts in January.
A 527 group is an independent non-profit organization that is involved in political awareness activities. It's not bound by soft money limits imposed by new campaign finance rules, but it is prohibited from coordinating with campaigns or parties.
Groups such as the MoveOn.org Voter Fund and the Media Fund, which work on behalf of Democrats but independently of the Kerry campaign, have been running ads this month criticizing Bush in several battleground states. Kerry, too, has been airing ads in key states, but on a much smaller scale.
The groups involved argue that they're operating legally.
Wes Boyd, president of MoveOn, said in a statement: "We do not coordinate with the Kerry campaign. These charges are baseless and irresponsible."
The coordination complaint is the second complaint the Bush campaign has filed against the groups. The FEC can take months or even years to resolve complaints.
The campaign in early March asked the FEC to investigate soft money spending by the Media Fund on anti-Bush ads. The Media Fund, using large individual donations to fund its ads, argues its activities are legal.
When the Media Fund and MoveOn ran ads in mid-March, the Bush campaign called them "bitter partisan groups." The two groups have helped Democrats match Bush ad for ad in key media markets.
Kerry, for his part, has been adamant in his campaign-finance stance.
"I think that I have been one of the strongest advocates in the United States Senate and Congress for campaign finance reform; as president I will do what I have done for 20 years," he told Fox News in February.
Kerry has a reputation for being one of the only U.S. senators to not take PAC money but last year he established political action committees to take contributions of both hard money and soft money for his White House run.
"I have never done it in any of my races for the United States Senate and I did it because as a candidate for president there were a lot of people around the country who do take it who wanted contributions," Kerry told Fox News. "I have never used it in my campaign but I gave it to people who in fact take it themselves and that is a distinction."
The Republican complaints come as the commission considers placing broad new limits on soft money spending by tax-exempt political groups.
Its decision could have the greatest short-term effect on Democrats, whose party depended more heavily on soft money than the GOP did before the law banned national party committees from collecting it. Several 527s that have been spending millions on television advertising have supported positions shared by Democrats.
The Republican Party collects millions of dollars more than the Democratic Party in limited donations from individuals allowed under the law. Bush, meanwhile, has raised more than $170 million, more than twice as much as Kerry has.
Trying to counter those advantages, several Democratic activists set up partisan groups to spend soft money after the law banned the parties from doing so in November 2002.
Campaign finance watchdogs often call such groups "shadow parties" because they have taken on types of spending the parties used to have soft money to finance, such as get-out-the-vote drives and political ads.
Republicans have also created such groups, but so far they have not been as prolific in their efforts as Democrats have.
Fox News' Carl Cameron, Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.