Interest groups that can urge the public to vote for or against candidates have spent at least $25 million on the presidential race since Labor Day, with John Kerry's (search) supporters outspending Bush's by more than 4-to-1.
The efforts range from pro-Kerry hard-hat stickers handed out by the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (search) PAC to pro-Bush radio ads, paid for by the National Right to Life (search) political action committee, airing in every battleground state.
"There's a lot more to come in the next week and a half," Kent Cooper, co-founder of the nonpartisan Political Money Line campaign finance tracking service, said of the spending.
Because PACs are financed with limited contributions from individual donors, their spending pales in comparison to the tens of millions of dollars that partisan groups collecting unlimited donations from companies, unions and wealthy activists are devoting to ads and get-out-the-vote operations.
But political action committees wield a powerful privilege the other groups do not: PACs can ask the public to cast ballots for or against a particular candidate, something so-called soft-money groups must stop short of doing. PACs can spend unlimited sums in presidential and congressional races as long as they do so independent of the campaigns their efforts support.
"In the presidential race, I think you're dealing with two factors. One, they want an impact on the race," Cooper said. "But there's probably a certain percentage of it where there's egos involved, and they want to show their members they played a role in the race ... maybe even more so than changing voters' minds."
Pro-Kerry labor union political action committees have spent nearly $9 million since Labor Day reaching voters both individually and en masse. The spending includes television and radio ads, hats, T-shirts and Frisbees, mass mailings, yard signs, telephone calls and door-to-door visits.
Environmental PACs are the next highest presidential spenders. Groups including the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters have devoted roughly $4 million in PAC money to efforts supporting Kerry or opposing Bush.
On Bush's side, the National Rifle Association's PAC has spent more than $3 million opposing Kerry or supporting Bush. Anti-abortion PACs, including National Right to Life's, also have spent heavily to back Bush, together pouring in more than $1 million.
Though the presidential race draws most of PACs' independent spending, high-profile congressional contests that will determine which party controls the House and Senate are also attracting special-interest money.
In all, PACs have devoted roughly $7 million to independent efforts in congressional races since Labor Day, an Associated Press review of reports they filed with the Federal Election Commission shows.
Led by physician groups such as the American Medical Association PAC, political action committees have spent at least $1.5 million backing Republican Rep. Richard Burr, who is running against former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles for the North Carolina Senate seat being vacated by Kerry running mate John Edwards.
The NRA Political Victory Fund has spent independently in roughly two dozen congressional races. The amounts range from about $169,000 in TV ads and $100,000 worth of postcards promoting Burr to about $4,700 for postcards supporting Republican Rep. Katherine Harris, who became famous as the secretary of state overseeing Florida's 2000 presidential recount.
The National Association of Realtors PAC has spent at least $350,000 seeking the re-election of Republican Rep. Anne Northup of Kentucky, a perennial Democratic target who began receiving real estate agents' support after backing them in a legislative dispute with banks over home sales.
The National Beer Wholesalers PAC devoted about $72,000 to mailings backing beer magnate and Colorado Republican Senate candidate Pete Coors. The American Dental PAC is also supporting one of its own; it spent about $93,000 on radio ads favoring dentist and Democratic House candidate Jim Harrell of North Carolina.
One person appears to be the source of one PAC's spending. California business executive Robin Arkley's $515,500 in donations was the only money raised by the You're Fired PAC through September; the PAC spent $250,000 this month on ads opposing the re-election of South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader.
National and state party committees can also spend unlimited amounts supporting presidential and congressional candidates independent of their campaigns. They have reported roughly $128 million in independent expenditures since Oct. 1, an FEC analysis found.