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Analysis: Do war and fundraising mix?

By PETER ROFF, UPI National Political Analyst

WASHINGTON, April 3 (UPI) -- It can be a thorny issue for a political figure to mix war and politics. Presidential counselor Karl Rove's long-ago speech to a Republican group saying the war against terrorism was going to be a central issue in the 2002 campaign caused many Democrats to go on the attack.

Rove, they said, had crossed the line and tried to politicize the war.

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What he actually did was step on a political landmine. In most campaigns, voters are encouraged to consider which party would do a better job on education, the economy, job creation and similar issues. These are, both sides agree, legitimate questions.

As far as the war on terror, both sides likely believed they knew the answer. Those allied with President George W. Bush would benefit if voters could be persuaded to consider the issue in determining how they were going to vote.

Where the war in Iraq is concerned, the issue is more potent and the risks are much higher.

Many candidates are using war-related messages in their fundraising pitches. Democrats Dick Gephardt of Missouri and John Edwards of North Carolina both referred to the conflict in e-mail messages sent to supporters asking for last minute contributions to their presidential campaigns prior to the close of the first quarter 2003 fundraising period on March 31.

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These messages, and others like them, are a standard political tactic. Candidates understand how carefully political analysts, opponents and the media scrutinize the end-of-quarter reports for evidence of strength or weakness. Candidates who show impressive numbers gain a psychological advantage. A perceived frontrunner whose report fails to meet expectations can find the chase for dollars suddenly becomes more difficult.

Tying the pitches to events in the news cycle is standard practice. Tying such pitches to the war, while American soldiers are fighting and dying, can either be an effective inducement to or political dynamite. It all depends on how the issue is handled.

Elected officials and political aspirants are expected to mention the war when communicating with the voters, as most political professionals know.

Robert Redding, a Washington lobbyist and former professional fundraiser, says he says he is not offended by the continuation of the political process in wartime. He, like others in his position, sees the issue raised frequently at events where candidates are raising money for 2004.

"The donors who attend (these events) are asking questions. It is the number one issue on their agenda and the members have to have an answer," he says. "There is nothing wrong with responding to questions" about the war.

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What they may say about it is open to debate.

In one recent case, a Republican running for U.S. Senate sent an e-mail solicitation that talked about the war while asking for last-minute contributions for the period ending March 31.

What set this message apart from the others was the reference to a congressional briefing conducted by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that was set to begin 30 minutes after the message was sent, a fact it referenced.

For some, linking the war and a soon-to-occur briefing with a request for contributions before the end of the reporting period went too far. Charlie Judd, a former GOP state party executive and congressional candidate who has taught fundraising tactics to candidates, calls the linkage "inappropriate, tacky, self-serving and risky."

"A message like that," Judd says, "risks a very negative reaction from a recipient who may be too close to the situation, who might have a family member or friend spending days and nights in the sand."

As the war in Iraq intersects with official congressional business and fundraising needs, there are those who will experience considerable heartburn because, some experts say, they have broken with accepted practice, pushing the envelope too far. Candidates are now in an uncomfortable position, having to determine where the line between what is appropriate and what is inappropriate lies -- and without many yardsticks to guide them.

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On the one hand are those campaign experts who say mention of the war is appropriate, even required. On the other are those who believe the issue is a red hot potato, to be avoided at all costs. The dividing line separating tasteful from tasteless is somewhere between those extremes. Just where, and whether it is in the same place in every instance, is more difficult to determine.

The DCI Group's Tim Hyde says whether a message is in good taste can be subjective. "Good taste is a relative concept in fundraising, and thus the political impact of using such devices is unpredictable -- though not unknowable."

Hyde says a candidate "wants to produce the right reaction among the target audience but without subjecting oneself to a credible charge of exploitation," echoing Judd's caution.

Redding says venue is an important factor in determining whether a mention of the war is appropriate. "What might be an acceptable comment at a reception inside Washington might not be acceptable as part of a direct-mail piece or telephone solicitation," he says.

Washington public relations consultant Craig Shirley agrees and encourages candidates to be bold when discussing the issue. "If someone is stating their position and is not misrepresenting their position or their opponent's, I see no reason why someone can't talk about support for the troops and the president and raise money at the same time."

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In his view, the hard-edged tone may be perfectly appropriate. "How many times have I seen liberals blame conservatives for old people dying over in messages about Social Security?" he asks.

Shirley, whose nephew is currently overseas as part of the U.S. military operation, says candidates who oppose the war or are not voicing support for the president or the troops open themselves up to criticism. "It is perfectly fine to point this out; someone can raise money to further spread their message while defeating the message of the anti-American, anti-military crowd."

In Hyde's view, this approach is not without risks.

"It is appropriate for an opponent to object to the use of the war as an issue. In fact, if a candidate is using the issue effectively, it's almost mandatory for the opponent to squawk," he says.

Others say caution is the word of the day whenever the war is linked to fund-raising appeals. Sean Tonner of Phase Line Strategies, a Colorado firm, urges the careful approach.

"I would be surprised to see any candidate or campaign use the war directly to raise money," he says. "If so, I would expect that their opponent or opposition would use it against them."

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Tonner thinks generic party messages, where the Republicans use statements like, "Support our president on tax cuts, the economy, and the war on terrorism" and the Democrats say, "Let's be heard on protecting working families, unemployment benefits and health care" are far more likely to appear in the coming campaign cycle than messages specifically tied to the war, in part because of the political risks involved.

The White House, which always exercises tight control over the president's fundraising activities, is believed to be seconding the careful approach. Tonner and other campaign professionals hint it has signaled that Republican candidates seeking office in 2004 should refrain from using the war for political fundraising.

Another who says the careful approach is the correct approach is former Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Walker of Pennsylvania. While the war is under way and U.S. troops are in harm's way, Walker says, "It is inadvisable to utilize war activity as a part of campaign fundraising."

Walker, a senior congressional staffer before being elected to the U.S. House seat he held for close to 20 years, takes a long-term view born of experience.

"While some members suspend all fundraising activity during wartime, depending on the length of hostilities that might be a difficult standard to maintain," he says. Candidates inclined to mention the war in fundraising appeals should rely on past practices rather than break new ground. "The best advice," he says, "is probably to do whatever fundraising you would typically do but leave the war out of it."

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New York attorney Paul Windels III says it all comes back to the issue of good taste, as long as the existing limitations on the use of federal property to raise campaign funds are respected.

"Factors that determine the effectiveness of any communication or fundraising solicitation include the popularity of the war as of the next election, the quality of the candidates in the race, the substance of the message and whether or not it raises credibility problems," says Windels, an attorney with a background in election law.

"What is or is not in good taste is ultimately a question for the electorate to decide and the electorate is unpredictable."

Those who believe using the war in fundraising appeals will employ the strategy and will have to be prepared to live with potentially unpredictable consequences which -- if the issue is mishandled -- could be severe.

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