Democrat 'attack ads' infuriate Bush team

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A long-brewing election finance dispute exploded yesterday as pro-Democrat political groups launched a $5m (£2.8m) advertising campaign in 17 key states attacking President George Bush. They ran into a barrage of Republican criticism and threatened legal action. The adverts, which attack Mr Bush for favouring the rich and "eroding the American dream" are paid for by a de facto coalition of Democratic advocacy groups, among them MoveOn.org which has already run hard-hitting ads showing a lie detector machine oscillating violently as Mr Bush made claims about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

A long-brewing election finance dispute exploded yesterday as pro-Democrat political groups launched a $5m (£2.8m) advertising campaign in 17 key states attacking President George Bush.

They ran into a barrage of Republican criticism and threatened legal action. The adverts, which attack Mr Bush for favouring the rich and "eroding the American dream" are paid for by a de facto coalition of Democratic advocacy groups, among them is MoveOn.org, which has already run hard-hitting ads showing a lie detector machine oscillating violently as Mr Bush made claims about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

But the Republicans insist the ads are blatant electioneering, part of the campaign of the Democratic candidate John Kerry in all but name. They say the groups are operating in direct violation of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law signed by Mr Bush last year, which outlaws most "soft money" or large, unregulated contributions to political parties from wealthy donors.

The groups get round this provision by not registering as political organisations, but as "527s", or less-regulated groups, governed by article 527 of the tax code. Among the backers of MoveOn.org and other groups are wealthy liberals such as George Soros, and Peter Lewis, head of the Progressive Corporation, who has given $3m to Americans Coming Together (ACT).

The Republicans have now asked the Federal Election Commission, which supervises campaign finance, to ban the 527s. If not, a Bush/Cheney spokesman warned yesterday, Republicans would hit back with similar "generic" advertising of their own.

The controversy has erupted at a finely poised moment, when John Kerry has clinched the nomination and finds himself ahead of the President in some polls. He also confronts the financial reality of being all but broke when the Bush/Cheney re-election campaign, unopposed in the primaries, is dipping into its $150m war-chest to mount a counter attack.

Yesterday, fresh from four more overwhelming primary victories in the southern states of Louisiana, Florida, Texas and Mississippi, Mr Kerry prepared to receive the endorsement of Howard Dean, who last year seemed the overwhelming favourite for the Democratic nomination. At least as important as any votes Mr Dean brings with him is the former Vermont governor's potent grassroots fund-raising network, which brought in $41m in 2003, twice the sum raised by Mr Kerry. Even so, the nominee-designate is embarking on a hectic fundraising round to raise $80m by the time of the Democratic convention in July.

Democrats hope to use the 527s to fill the gap, and what amounts to a parallel campaign to that of Mr Kerry is taking shape, organised state by state, with specific functions, including communications and voter research, allotted to specific groups. By law, the 527s' coalition must have no contact with the Kerry campaign, although its chief operatives include some of the Democratic party's most experienced strategists.

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