For a company that was once loath to play in the political sandbox, Microsoft sure has come around. Mere days before the opening of Microsoft’s court battle with antitrust lawyers, the GOP’s senatorial committee pulled in a $100,000 contribution from the company, and the Republican National Committee got a $40,000 check —- bringing the software giant’s soft-money gifts to the party to more than $400,000 in the 1997-98 election cycle. Coincidentally, about that time, 10 Republican senators signed a “Dear Colleague” letter criticizing the Clinton administration for subjecting the software industry to “needless regulation through overzealous enforcement of antitrust” laws. “We must protect our high-tech industry’s freedom to innovate,” said the Oct. 12 letter, copying Microsoft’s p.r. machine practically verbatim. While the letter was circulating, CEO Bill Gates appeared in North Carolina with one of his most vocal Senate defenders, Lauch Faircloth, who is locked in a squeaker of a race. Gates didn’t endorse Faircloth, but spoke warmly of him and thanked him for his help.