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In politics, the rise of small donors

In new world of campaign-finance limits, parties have ramped up outreach to voters - and are surprisingly flush with cash.

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When President Bush signed campaign-finance reform into law after the 2002 elections, the two major political parties held their breath.

Would the new ban on "soft money" - those unregulated, unlimited donations from wealthy individuals, corporations, and organized labor - starve the parties of funds? Many thought the parties would lose control of their messages and voter outreach, as money increasingly flowed to outside groups.

It's true that independent groups are happily taking in millions of soft dollars that the parties can no longer accept, deploying foot soldiers to canvass and register voters, and airing TV ads aimed at influencing opinion. But the parties, too, are flush with cash. They've ramped up their quest for limited "hard money" donations, and been greeted by a flood of cash from individuals. The donor rolls of the two major parties have swelled by 2-1/2 million people.

"Really, the story of this election is in some ways the power of the small donor," says Anthony Corrado, a campaign-finance expert at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. "We have really seen a democratization of the financing of elections in this cycle. When the law was passed, everyone was saying ... 'The parties will wither away and die. The interest groups will rule the world.' Well, if we look through the end of May, national party committees have raised $546 million in hard money."

The presidential race is also awash with money, fueled by individual donations.

By the end of May, President Bush had raised more than $216 million and Democrat John Kerry had raised $147 million; last week alone, Senator Kerry raised $12 million. The Bush campaign has more than a million donors, compared with 345,000 in 2000. In the last election, Democratic nominee Al Gore had 155,000 donors. Last month, the Kerry campaign marked its millionth online donor.

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