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Inside Politics

Court decision puts 'issue ads' back into '08 race

Story Highlights

• Ruling strikes part of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law
• Door open for issue ads that are used to promote particular causes
• Effects of the ads on candidates are uncertain
• Candidate McCain, as co-sponsor of the law, takes a political hit
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court's reversal of federal limits on independent political advertising has the potential to add "another X factor" to an already-unpredictable 2008 presidential race, one campaign finance analyst said Monday.

"It adds more money. It adds the potential for more upheaval from ad campaigns that the campaigns may want to stay away from," said Evan Tracey, a campaign finance analyst at TNS Media Intelligence.

Monday's 5-4 ruling struck down a key provision of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that barred third-party issue advertising 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election and restricted the use of candidates' names. (Full story)

Though justices ruled the ads must still avoid explicit calls for the election or defeat of a federal candidate, their decision opens the door for advocacy groups, corporations and labor unions to unleash a barrage of issue ads in the frenetic weeks before voters go the polls.

"What's old is new again," Tracey said. "The advertising tactics that we saw in the '90s and the early parts of 2000, before McCain-Feingold, are now available again to the groups, the unions and the other parties that are going to play in this."

Until they were banned in 2002, these issue ads were widely used to promote particular causes -- such as environmental protection or tax reform -- and they often had the effect of either helping or hurting at-risk candidates fighting for their political lives.

The ruling was a blow to Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who was battered by independent issue ads during his 2000 bid for the White House. He co-sponsored the law.

"It is regrettable that a split Supreme Court has carved out a narrow exception by which some corporate and labor expenditures can be used to target a federal candidate in the days and weeks before an election," McCain said in a written statement on the decision.

But conservatives saw the restrictions as an effort to squelch groups such as gun rights activists or abortion opponents, who brought the Wisconsin case that led to Monday's ruling.

McCain was a party to the case, and one of his rivals in the current presidential field wasted no time tying him to Monday's decision. "Score one for free speech," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said. "McCain-Feingold was a poorly crafted bill."

Romney told reporters the law may have had good intentions, but didn't accomplish what its sponsors intended.

"In fact, it has not helped our system of government and our political process, but instead hurt it," he said. "So I am hopeful that we'll ultimately see this bill struck down or replaced with legislation that makes more sense."

McCain noted that Monday's ruling left standing the meat of the bill -- its prohibition against federal officeholders soliciting unregulated "soft money" contributions to political parties.

Tracey said many groups have already skirted other provisions of the law by paying for issue ads from separate funds, meaning viewers may see little change in the content of the commercials aired. But he said deep-pocketed interests "can pretty much play end-to-end now."

"There's no more kind of having to work around the laws, when they can pretty much go straight through to Election Day," Tracey said.

CNN's Candy Crowley and Sasha Johnson contributed to this report.


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