Shirley helping to launch advocacy group for GOP

WASHINGTON: Craig Shirley of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs is leading the charge to help Republicans overcome the soft-money gap in this year's presidential election.

WASHINGTON: Craig Shirley of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs is leading the charge to help Republicans overcome the soft-money gap in this year's presidential election.

Shirley, along with GOP strategists Frank Donatelli and George Terwilliger, is launching Americans for a Better Country, an advocacy group modeled after liberal "527s" such as The Media Fund and MoveOn.org. These groups - named for the section of the tax code under which they operate - are free to raise unlimited money usually used for attack ads and direct-mail campaigns.

Thus far, such groups have failed to materialize among conservatives - largely because the Bush campaign already holds a substantial fundraising advantage over John Kerry. But Shirley says the GOP needs 527s for communications purposes, not financial ones.

The groups can "push the envelope a little bit more," said the longtime GOP PR maven, because they aren't "bogged down by the committees and debates and internal checks and balances that are in a campaign."

Indeed, many of the more radical charges against President Bush this year have come from 527s, including calls that Congress censure him for "intentionally" falsifying evidence of WMDs in Iraq.

But even Shirley concedes that conservatives face some unique challenges in setting up such groups.

"We don't have a lot of George Soroses who can write a $5 million check," he said, referring to the philanthropist and mutual-fund manager who provides much of the financing for liberal 527s. "We don't have those big Hollywood givers or big software internet givers, so our money comes in much smaller increments."

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