WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush’s political team is orchestrating a vastly larger advertising campaign than thought possible under federal law, taking control of millions in Republican Party funds simply by inserting the phrase “our leaders in Congress” in selected commercials.

The GOP strategy had gone unnoticed for weeks by Sen. John Kerry and the Democrats, who now may abandon their own less-cost-efficient approach to advertising.

Ken Mehlman, Bush’s campaign manager, said in an interview that federal election law allows the campaign access to party money “provided that your message is broader than the individual candidate and includes a discussion of the overall agenda and the message of the party.” The Republican National Committee has $93 million on hand.

This month the Republicans began airing television and radio commercials paid for jointly by the president’s re-election campaign and the RNC and including the words “our leaders in Congress.”

The ads say Bush and congressional leaders have plans to strengthen homeland security, expand the economy and reduce health care costs. Some also attack Kerry and “the liberals in Congress.”

The president appears briefly in each of the TV ads and his voice is heard in the radio ads.

Federal law limits overall spending by presidential candidates to about $75 million for the general election campaign, including advertising. In addition, the political parties can spend $16 million on campaign activities – TV and radio commercials included – in coordination with their presidential candidates.

Republicans, however, say the cost of ads that mention congressional leaders or broadly partisan tags such as “liberals” can be split between the re-election campaign and the RNC without counting toward the $16 million party limit. The presidential campaign does have to count its share of the cost against its $75 million spending limit, but the campaign gains the ability to control a larger budget as well as the message in the ads.

The ads have been made by Maverick Media, a production company headed by Bush’s ad-maker, Mark McKinnon.

Jano Cabrera, a Democratic National Committee spokesman, said Democratic officials were unfamiliar with the GOP ad strategy until asked about it by a reporter.

“We do not discuss our future ad strategy,” Cabrera said, but other Democratic officials said the party was quickly looking into following the GOP’s lead.

Since August, the Democrats have been supplementing Kerry’s commercials with $50 million in independent advertising. But that requires the party to pay for polling, production costs, salaries and other expenses, and bars contact between the candidate’s campaign and people working on the independent effort.

By contrast, Bush’s campaign relies on in-house services for the ads that mention GOP leaders, saving costs and allowing the campaign to control the content of the commercials as well as their placement.

With access to more than $16 million in party money, the campaign has greatly increased its strategic flexibility. Bush’s team could direct more ads to tossup states won by Democrat Al Gore in 2004.

The campaign spotted the option in the law weeks ago, a senior Bush adviser said. Surveying focus groups, officials tested the impact of mentioning Congress and using various terminology and found that voters were not turned away.

In the three weeks since the general election spending limits kicked in for Bush, his campaign and the RNC combined have spent roughly $29 million on advertising. The bill was split in half, officials say, because the commercials equally support Bush and congressional candidates and talk generally about a policy agenda.

The commercials only show pictures of Bush when he says “I’m George W. Bush and I approve this message.” The statement, required by law, is on the radio commercials, too. The ads also carry the disclaimer “Paid for by Bush-Cheney 04, Inc. and the Republican National Committee,” and direct viewers to a Web site “agendaforamerica.com.”

But the spots clearly are meant to help Bush most of all – and give his campaign control of the party money.

The ads mostly are appearing on network affiliates in contested presidential battlegrounds such as Iowa, Florida and Ohio. They aren’t on the air in states that aren’t contested in the presidential race even if those states have competitive House or Senate races. And, Bush’s campaign – not the RNC – issues news releases about them. The Web site address in the ads also links viewers back to a page on the president’s campaign Web site.

The ads give the party a three-for-one message, supporting Bush and GOP candidates for the House and Senate at a time when Republicans are working to keep control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.

The Federal Election Commission did not raise any immediate objection the strategy, but campaign finance experts are divided over its legality.

Larry Noble, head of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics and a former FEC general counsel, said the GOP has found “a way to expand the coordinated party expenditure limit” legally.

However, Trevor Potter, a former FEC chairman and the head of the Campaign Legal Center, said any coordination – regardless of content – between the party and the presidential campaign should be subject to the $16 million limit.

Tom Josefiak, a Bush campaign lawyer who also is a former FEC chairman, said, “These ads were created to benefit not only the president but candidates in Congress, and in saying that, it’s clear to me looking at the law and regulations that everything we do is in accordance with the law.”

AP-ES-09-22-04 1748EDT

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