Dole plays ethics card as election bills soar

Republicans demand inquiry into cash flowing into President's war chest
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The Independent Online
Far behind in the presidential race, the Republicans are turning their fire on to President Bill Clinton's ethical record - and in particular massive donations to his Democratic Party from a wealthy Indonesian couple - which are fast turning into a metaphor for the bloated, runaway spending of the campaign of 1996.

US elections never come cheap. But even setting aside the $425,000 (pounds 270,000) from Arief Wiriadinata and his wife, this year's elections are set to be the most expensive ever, with presidential and congressional races costing anything up to $2bn.

The reasons for the extravaganza are several. This year features an especially large number of hotly contested Senate races, in which a single candidate must sometimes spend $10m or more. On the House side, the Republicans are perforce pulling out every stop to retain the majority they won in 1994 for the first time in four decades - an offensive which in turn is being countered by an unprecedented $35m of advertising by the AFL-CIO labour organisation on behalf of Democrats, concentrated on districts housing vulnerable, conservative Republican newcomers.

All the while, unlimited amounts of "soft" money - in theory, contributions to party organisations as opposed to the candidates themselves - are pouring in, making a mockery of post-Watergate federal regulations designed to limit individual and corporate donations, and introduce a sytem of partial public financing.

Nor have matters been helped by a Supreme Court ruling in July that allows the parties, under the Constitution's protection of free speech, to set up "independent committees" to raise more money. The sole proviso, impossible to enforce, is that activities financed by these committees should not be "co-ordinated" with the presidential campaign.

As a result, spending will break all records. The presidential race alone will devour at least $600m, barely a third of that provided from public funds, while the 34 Senate and 435 Congressional races will see spending overall of at least $1bn. But whatever the perils of an electoral process suborned by money, nobody is greatly inclined to do anything about a system that invariably works to an incumbent's advantage.

Despite much sermonizing about the need to "clean up the politics," President Clinton has thrown himself into the fundraising business as shamelessly as any of his predecessors, offering $10,000-a-plate birthday dinners and perks like overnight stays at the White House for particularly generous contributors to the Democratic cause.

Even so, he could have done without the Wiriadinata controversy. The couple are associates of James Riady, billionaire head of the Indonesian banking and property conglomeate, the Lippo group, and who got to know Mr Clinton when he lived in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the 1980s. Since he took office, the President has had three of what a White House spokesman this weekend called "drop-by" social meetings with Mr Riady in the Oval Office, one within the last month.

That in itself is not illegal, nor are political contributions from foreigners as long as they have the right of permanent residence in the US. But for the Republicans, adrift by 15 points or more in the presidential race and under increasing threat of losing Congress as well, the admission has been providential.

Within hours, close associates of Republican candidate Bob Dole were demanding a Congressional probe, complete with yet another independent counsel to investigate the matter, which Mr Dole himself may well raise in tomorrow's final presidential debate in San Diego. Speaker Newt Gingrich claimed Mr Clinton's Indonesian connection "makes Watergate look tiny".

Publicly, the Clinton campaign dismisses the charges as a sign of Republican desperation and part of what Vice-President Al Gore on Sunday termed a "relentless, well-financed cottage industry". aimed at discrediting and ousting the President. Cottage industry or otherwise, however, it offers Mr Dole his best - and possibly his last - chance of victory on 5 November.