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Politics without soft money

Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance leaves GOP with the edge in raising funds.

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In the short run, the Republican Party is the big winner following the Supreme Court's blockbuster ruling on campaign-finance reform.

Now that the year-old ban on so-called soft money donations to the parties - the large, unlimited contributions from corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals - has been affirmed, the raising of limited "hard money" donations is a central part of the game.

The GOP is better than the Democrats at raising hard money. Through October of this year, the Republican National Committee and the GOP House and Senate campaign committees had raised $173 million compared with the Democrats' $75 million.

Furthermore, the campaign-finance ruling affirmed the increased limit on hard-money donations - furthering the GOP advantage. The limit on individual contributions to a federal candidate is now $2,000 per election, up from $1,000. An individual can now donate up to $25,000 a year to a party, up from $20,000.

"At least through 2004, there's an advantage to Republicans," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. "The Democrats and Republicans are adapting to the new law, but there really isn't very much time. And the pressure of the 2004 campaign will be upon them."

The longer-term picture is less predictable, but the high court itself, in its majority ruling, echoed the common view among observers of money in politics that funds will inevitably find their way into the system - and that Wednesday's ruling will not be the final word. "Money, like water, will always find an outlet," the opinion stated. "What problems will arise, and how Congress will respond, are concerns for another day."

On that score, liberals appear quicker than conservatives to set up alternate groups designed to capture the old soft-money donations, through groups known as "527s," named for the provision in the federal tax code that governs them. Already among the best known is a group called America Coming Together, which has the financial backing of billionaire financier George Soros.

Now that the ban on soft money stands, however, analysts expect conservatives to quickly ramp up creation of separate committees as well, independent of the Republican Party. The impact on the parties themselves - particularly their ability to put out a clear message - could be profound.

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