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RNC opens assault on anti-Bush groups

Complaint filed with FEC alleges collusion with Kerry campaign

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Stay with CNN for updates and analysis of developments including the Kerry campaign's debate challenge to Bush, and the Republican National Committee's complaints about political groups' anti-Bush ads.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Republican National Committee launched a wide-ranging legal assault Wednesday on more than two dozen political groups working to defeat President Bush.

The committee says the groups are part of an "unprecedented criminal enterprise" to circumvent federal campaign laws and pour illegal soft money contributions into the 2004 race.

In a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission, the RNC also charged that the groups are illegally coordinating their advertising attacking Bush with the campaign of presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry.

The Kerry campaign is named as a respondent in the complaint, along with the anti-Bush groups, their leaders and some of their large donors, including billionaire financier George Soros and Hollywood producer Steven Bing.

The groups in question, including, The Media Fund, America Coming Together and America Votes, are known as 527 groups after a provision in the tax code.

"These 527 groups, in conjunction with their representatives and their leadership, are conspiring together to violate the law, and conspiring together to raise this illegal soft money, and conspiring with a message and a coordination effort," said Jill Holtzman-Vogel, the RNC's chief counsel.

"I think there's no question that there is a larger coordination and a larger conspiracy here on both counts."

In a statement, the Kerry campaign said it has nothing to do with the ads or the groups that are running them.

In a tactical twist, the RNC asked the FEC to quickly consider its complaint then dismiss it -- so the committee can move the dispute into federal court.

The reason? The FEC's process for handling such complaints makes it unlikely it would be resolved before the November election. In federal court, the RNC could ask a judge to stop the activities of the 527s immediately.

Marc Racicot, chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign and former chairman of the RNC, conceded the request was unprecedented, but he said it was warranted under the circumstances.

"We are confident that they will consider this unique request we made and put an end to this abuse of the law and put an end to this violation of the law," he said.

The RNC complaint says that the 527 groups are violating the 2002 campaign finance reform act by paying for anti-Bush ads and other political activities with unlimited contributions raised from wealthy donors, unions and liberal interest groups -- so-called soft money that political parties can no longer raise.

The complaint called the effort an "illegal Democratic soft-money slush fund scheme."

The RNC also charged that some of the 28 groups involved in the effort have not registered as federal political committees, which is required for groups that seek to influence the outcome of a federal election.

Such committees can accept only hard money contributions, which are limited and regulated.

Wednesday's complaint was the latest round in months of partisan sparring over whether 527 groups working to defeat Bush can use soft money.

Leaders of the groups involved have repeatedly insisted they are well within the law, accusing the GOP and the Bush campaign of trying to stifle dissent.

Republicans, who hold a substantial advantage over Democrats in their ability to raise hard money, complain that the groups are using soft money to close the gap and help Kerry compete against Bush's larger war chest.

Leaders of the effort openly admit that is their intent -- but they insist it is perfectly legal.

The 2002 campaign finance reform law, more commonly known as the McCain-Feingold act, sought to limit the impact in political campaigns of soft money, which both parties were pouring into largely negative ad campaigns. Kerry supported the measure.

In February, the FEC issued a ruling saying a communication that "promotes, supports, attacks or opposes" a federal candidate falls under the hard money rules.

The RNC charges that decision clearly puts the activities of the 527 groups against Bush out of bounds; the groups disagree, saying what they're doing is consistent with the FEC's ruling.

The RNC also says the 527 groups, which are supposed to be independent, are coordinating their efforts with the Kerry campaign and the Democratic Party, which is not allowed.

The basis of that charge in the complaint is the fact that some of the leaders of the anti-Bush effort have ties to the Kerry campaign and the Democratic Party.

They include Kerry's former campaign manager, Jim Jordan; Harold Ickes, a member of the Democratic National Committee's executive committee; and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who will chair this summer's Democratic National Convention at which Kerry will be nominated.

The Kerry campaign earlier said that it no longer has any involvement with Jordan, who was ousted in November when the senator shook up his campaign staff.

The RNC also included in its complaint an analysis of ad spending in early March, when the Bush campaign began advertising in 80 markets.

Kerry responded with ads in 39 markets, and MoveOn and the Media Fund joined Kerry in advertising in 38 of the same markets.

But of the 41 markets in which Bush was advertising and Kerry wasn't, MoveOn and the Media Fund put up ads in only 15, according to the RNC.

"Wherever one went, the others were sure to go in an effort to use soft dollars to counter a hard dollar Bush-Cheney '04 buy," the complaint says.

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