Has the Campaign Finance Exodus Begun?

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Sen. John Breaux has broken with fellow Democrats over McCain-Feingold

Democrats always did like campaign finance reform a lot more when it didn't have the votes.

But with John McCain and Russ Feingold's soft-money ban finally seeing the light of full Senate debate next week, the rumblings of sudden discontent among the party formerly in McCain's corner is reaching a fever pitch.

Tuesday, it was centrist John Breaux, and he doesn't sound like he's alone. "If it was up for a vote in its current form, I would vote against it," he told reporters. "Many of us have concluded that it creates a very unlevel playing field between the two parties and I don't think that's what we should be for."

Then there's the Torricelli indicator. A prolific fundraiser and head of the Democrats' wildly successful 2000 Senate fund-raising operation, the New Jersey senator's flights from the prospect of success on this issue have become legendary — after all, his first job was to vote the party's pocketbook. Now out of the post but eager to craft a more centrist image, he's having second thoughts all over again.

"Clearly this tests the limits of constitutionality under First Amendment laws," Torricelli said Tuesday. "I think it's very difficult to legally and constitutionally say to third-party groups that they can't spend their money the way they want to."

For years, McCain has been up against a 60-vote hurdle — thanks to a promised filibuster from Mitch McConnell — to get his legislation into floor debate, and for each tilt at the windmill McCain enjoyed unanimous Democratic support. This year, with the Senate at 50-50 and McCain still enjoying some political pop from his equally quixotic presidential run, McConnell and Trent Lott have had to cut a deal with Bush's No. 1 saddle burr and give McCain-Feingold its due chance at becoming law.

And now McConnell is having a good chuckle at the exodus across the aisle. "I think there are a whole lot of Democrats who never had any idea what was in this bill," he said Tuesday. "At least this year they are reading it."

And as McCain readily admits on his Sunday-show appearances these days, their concerns have some justification. The erosion of support among Democrats started in 1996, when Bill Clinton's money-drenched reelection campaign proved that Democrats could be fund-raise a king's ransom too. And what the McAuliffe crowd was particularly good at raising was soft money, which goes to the issue advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts that won Al Gore the popular vote — and got the Senate to 50-50 in the first place. Soft money the Democrats may not be able to do without.

In the 2000 election, Democrats essentially broke even with Republicans in the soft-money chase, according to the FEC, raising $243 million to $244.4 million. And in congressional races, the Democrats' House and Senate campaign committees actually outraised the Republicans in soft money, $120 million to $94 million.

Stick to hard money, which parties raise from individual donations, and the Republicans are clear winners. In 2000, Republicans raised $447 million in hard money, thanks to a larger pool of small donors; the Democrats raised $270 million. And with a Bush in the White House, that discrepancy won't get any smaller in 2002.

McCain blithely maintains that he and Feingold "do not think this is a perfect bill," and that some vigorous debate and the right amendments can produce some form of reform that will win the necessary supporters from both sides of the aisle.

At the very least, campaign finance reform will find out next week who its real friends are — even if it turns out there are a lot fewer than there used to be.

"A lot of people raised concerns," one Democratic senator told CNN of an intra-party discussion of the bill Tuesday. "The only one who spoke out in support of McCain-Feingold was Russ Feingold."