WASHINGTON – There's still more than two months to go before Election Day (search) and despite new campaign finance laws money is being spent at a dizzying pace.
The spending tops mid-election year levels in 2002 and 2000, when national party committees could still raise corporate, union and unlimited donations known as soft money.
The presidential and congressional candidates and the national party committees that support them have already laid out more than $1 billion for the 2004 election cycle.
President Bush (search) alone devoted $209 million to his re-election effort through July, a campaign finance report he filed Friday shows.
His Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry (search) of Massachusetts, reported to the Federal Election Commission that he spent $36.4 million in July, on top of nearly $150 million through June.
In addition, Senate and House candidates spent $487 million from January 2003 through last June, and national party committees burned through more than $400 million, their reports covering the 18-month period show.
Under a law that took effect starting with this election cycle, the biggest contribution party committees can collect is $25,000 from an individual -- limited donations known as hard money -- and corporate and union contributions are banned. Individuals can give up to $2,000 to a presidential or congressional candidate under the law, which doubled that limit.
"The parties and the presidential campaigns have just been hard-money machines," said Bob Biersack, a spokesman for the FEC who tracks campaign fund raising and spending. "On the presidential side it's both ends: money in those $2,000 increments, but it's also a lot of small contributions for Bush and Kerry. And I think the same is true for the parties."
In addition, nonparty groups that can still collect soft money are spending tens of millions on ads and get-out-the-vote efforts.
In the presidential race, advertising has been the single biggest expense, accounting for at least $116 million of Bush's spending and at least $93 million of Kerry's.