By Susan Q. Stranahan

With its lack of vicious and misleading political ads, this primary season has been like none other in a generation, writes The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg.

How long that will last? We may find out today.

Some Democratic strategists credit a provision of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform law for the smiley-face tone. The rule requires a candidate to endorse any and every political ad run by his (or her) campaign — in the ad itself. You’ve seen and heard them: (an image of John Edwards or John Kerry on the screen) “I’m John Edwards (Kerry). I’m running for president, and I approve of this message.”

If that’s what is keeping things out of the gutter, then a decision by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which is meeting today, could well turn the advertising (and fund-raising) landscape on its head.

The Democrats think they have found a loophole in the McCain-Feingold law (which the party largely supported) that would remove limits on “soft money” donations, the big checks from PACs and other special interests. The loophole is in the form of so-called 527 organizations (named after a section of the IRS code granting them tax-exempt status). The 527s are independent groups with no direct tie to the candidate, and thus are not bound by spending limits, say the Democrats. As a result, they are free to invest as much as they want on advertising and voter registration.

As Time magazine reports, a decision by the FEC on the future of 527s could have enormous impact on the financial muscle of the Democrats. The Bush campaign’s war-chest is about $100 million, whereas apparent front-runner John Kerry’s is about empty, says Time. Absent some outside help — from whatever source — the Democrats will have a tough time reaching millions of undecided voters.

According to a report in The Washington Post, FEC Chairman Bradley A. Smith wrote a memo to his five fellow commissioners arguing that the 527 committees should be allowed to raise and spend this “soft money” with no FEC controls. (Among those arguing against this position are the sponsors of the reform law, Sens. John McCain and Russell Feingold.)

The popularity of the 527s is apparent. One group, calling itself America Coming Together (ACT) has raised $12.5 million, with a goal of $95 million. Contributors include financier George Soros, who has donated $6.5 million to the pro-Democratic group. (Soros’ Open Society Institute is one of several funders of Campaign Desk.) Ultimately, the Democrats hope to raise $190 million through the 527s before November.

As Time notes, regardless of the FEC’s decision, the Republicans — who sought the FEC ruling on the 527s — will wind up having it both ways. If 527s are shut down by the FEC, the GOP can simply rely on their larger base of individual contributors who already are allowed to write hard-money checks of $2,000 per person. If 527s are allowed, they can create their own 527s — what about Daddy Warbucks for a Better America? — and rake in money like the Democrats.

Finances aside, the ability of these independent organizations to shape the tenor of the debate — as well as the issues — has some strategists worried. As long as the ads came from the candidate’s own handlers, the campaign retained control, says Bill Carrick, who was media strategist for Rep. Dick Gephardt’s 2004 campaign.

“If you don’t have the campaign doing the ad itself, you’re going to run into more negativity, more goofy subjects — especially if somebody has an agenda,” said Carrick in an interview from his Los Angeles office. “You can imagine all the esoteric issues that people will choose to raise if they don’t have to check in first with the campaign.”

As for the requirement that candidates personally endorse their own ads, Carrick says he and his fellow Democratic media advisors plan to watch closely how their Republican counterparts tack on an appearance by George Bush at the end of each commercial.

Such a tagline will put the president smack in the middle of the political fray, says Carrick, “and down from the Rose Garden pedestal damn fast.”

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.