The fledgling deal to keep advertising funded by big, unrestricted donations out of the U.S. Senate campaign in New York sprang its first leak Thursday when an abortion-rights group said it will not live up to the terms negotiated by Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. Rep. Rick A. Lazio.
With an anti-Lazio ad already produced, the New York Chapter of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League said it will run the 15-second spot sometime in the next several weeks despite a request by the Clinton campaign not to restart the soft-money advertising wars.
The decision by the abortion-rights group is likely to prompt a comparable response from outside groups loyal to Lazio in a fight involving the use of soft money in the Senate race. Polls show that the public is little interested in the issue, which is at the heart of reform efforts to rein in unlimited and unregulated campaign spending.
During the weekend, Clinton and Lazio reached a deal in which political parties would agree not to run ads in the final weeks of the race that were paid for with soft-money donations. Such donations are outside the $1,000-per-person federal limit for general elections; such contributions can and often do exceed $100,000 apiece from some individuals and groups that donate to soft-money accounts that then fund so-called party-building ads that boost or tear down a candidate's campaign.
Besides political parties, the two candidates also called on private groups backing their campaigns to abide by the terms of the ban on radio and television ads financed by soft money.
But after a meeting of its board,
the abortion-rights group said Thursday that the ban violates its First Amendment right to express its opinions fully in the high-profile Senate race. "Without a doubt, we'll be running advertising when and where we deem it appropriate," said Robert Jaffe, a spokesman for the group.
For at least this week, the abortion-rights group will not be running the ad, which it unveiled anyway to reporters Thursday afternoon. Jaffe said the "environment has been so poisoned" by the talk of a ban on soft-money ads that the group is concerned that if it immediately runs the ad, its message will get lost in the squabble about campaign finance.
But soft-money ban or not, the group says, its patience in sitting on the advertising sidelines will quickly wane. "We have a 30-year history of trying to elect pro-choice candidates, both Democratic and Republican, and we cannot be silenced by this agreement, which would restrict us from using radio and television as a way of reaching voters," the spokesman said.
The ad says Lazio, a Republican who says he favors abortion rights, voted 43 times against various reproductive-rights bills and would not use abortion as a litmus test for U.S Supreme Court nominees.
A host of other deep-pocket groups are, for now, considering their advertising options. A powerful union, New York State United Teachers, has not ruled out running TV ads in support of Clinton's Democratic campaign. And a Lazio group, the Virginia-based Emergency Committee to Stop Hillary Rodham Clinton, composed of a number of conservative leaders, has said it plans to use hard-money donations to fund anti-Clinton ads in the final weeks of the campaign.
In Buffalo, Lazio criticized the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League's decision. "I don't think it's in the spirit of the agreement. I think Mrs. Clinton should condemn it," he said.
His spokesman, Dan McLagan, was more pointed. He accused the abortion-rights group and the Clinton campaign of engaging in a "scam" and dismissed the first lady's contentions that she cannot control outside groups.
"If Mrs. Clinton can't handle a group so supportive of her candidacy that they've endorsed her and have run false ads on her behalf, then she certainly doesn't have what it takes to fight for New Yorkers in Washington," McLagan said.
Earlier in Albany, before the abortion-rights group's decision was announced, Clinton campaign manager Bill de Blasio told reporters that he had sent the group a letter the day before asking it to "respect the agreement we came to. . . . We've made clear we'd like our allies not to do that."