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LOTS OF WORDS, NO ACTION

Hillary Clinton was right. It was pure theater last Wednesday when Rick Lazio steamed over to her podium, flapping a paper and demanding she sign it, pledging to foreswear soft money for the remainder of their Senate campaigns. The confrontation at the debate in Buffalo was a reminder that, despite all the talk from both candidates, big-money donors are still helping to underwrite this campaign. They will want something in return.

Critics dismiss Lazio's gesture as a bluff designed to embarrass the first lady, who had earlier this year offered to forgo soft money if Lazio would. Given the vast amounts of money at stake, they are probably right, but Clinton had a chance to call his bluff, and she didn't.

The money chase continues.

One of the reasons it continues is that the law is a wet noodle. Campaign finance laws differentiate, allegedly, between advertising that promotes a candidate and so-called "issue ads" that can be funded by soft money, the unregulated donations that are supposedly for party "housekeeping" uses.

This year, the presidential candidates don't even bother to pretend. They are actively involved in directing soft-money ads that ignore any distinction between candidates and issues.

Some candidates are not even consistent from one moment to the next. One recent TV ad purported to show Lazio and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan walking down a hall together. It was a fake, as Moynihan complained, but Lazio pleaded helplessness. Not my ad, he explained; it's that darned Republican Leadership Council, and what can I do about them?

He repeated the same poor-mouth excuse at last week's debate, even though he said last month that if Clinton were to agree to ban soft money, he would somehow summon the courage to ask the council if it would please stop running that ad. Since the debate, he has again said that if Clinton takes the cure with him, he will repudiate all such ads.

Right. There oughta be a law.

The first lady, meantime, has managed to stir up one of the truly offensive campaign maneuvers of the past few years: the Clinton administration's willingness to trade a night in the White House for campaign contributions.

Turns out donors to the Clinton Senate campaign are also getting the royal treatment, though the first lady insists there is no quid pro quo. These are just supporters with whom the Clintons are friendly, she says.

Admittedly, this is a tricky area. Any resident of the White House is entitled to have friends stay there, and those friends are liable to be supporters, maybe even donors. You can't simply put an end to this.

But bed-and-bucks as a fund-raising policy became an issue during the 1996 presidential campaign, and rightly so. The tawdry practice of turning the White House -- which really is the people's house, the Clintons are just renting -- into a fund-raising attraction emits a disturbing odor.

At a minimum, the first lady should have understood that.

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