Once thought of as a stealthy way to exploit a loophole in campaign finance law, political action committees controlled by congressional leaders have become a flashy vehicle for self-promotion.
And many so-called Leadership PACs have set up extensive Web sites, ostensibly to promote other candidates, but clearly devoted to fluffing up their patron's political standing.
For several congressional Democrats who are considering a run for president in 2004, the PAC Web sites are largely indistinguishable in style and content from a regular electioneering site.
At this phase, before candidates have clarified their intentions, the leadership PACs are their main vehicle for having the functionality of a real campaign, including communicating with voters. And since the sites are paid for by contributions to the committee, the presidential hopefuls are rewarded with a comprehensive Web site devoted to advancing their own interests — at no cost to them.
The more boastful sites play footsie with federal election laws, which prohibit the PAC's sponsors from funnelling resources to their own campaigns for reelection or for a different political office.
E-mail subscribers to Sen. Joseph Lieberman's, D-Conn., Responsibility, Opportunity and Community PAC Web site can get the full text of the senator's speeches sent to them — whether on tax cuts, Enron, or the war on terror.
The ROCPAC Web site's home page lists six items that read as press releases for the senator, including a prominent link to a Hartford Courant article about comedian Jerry Stiller attending Lieberman's 63rd birthday in early May.
By clicking on a small tab, visitors can view a list of candidates ROCPAC has supported. A few candidates' biographies are provided — the "ROC Stars" — and dozens of candidate Web sites are listed.
But the majority of the site is devoted to Lieberman — his life, accomplishments and current activities.
"We could be better at this," ROCPAC Executive Director Sherry Brown says of the site. "We've only been up for six weeks now."
She denied the site served as a sneaky way to promote Lieberman's political persona. "I think the fact that we've given over $400,000 in contributions to candidates says what we're doing."
ROCPAC.org will soon be managed by a full-time Webmaster who will spend time highlighting the office-seekers.
Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's Fund For A Healthy America PAC is new, but its Web site is among the most informative. Tabs bring viewers to pages about "The Vermont Record," about Dean and his priorities, and notable quotables. One learns, for example, that The Associated Press Vermont Bureau Chief Chris Graff once said, "Howard Dean is Vermont's Harry Truman."
The fund's home page is adorned with three colorful photographs of picaresque Vermont scenery. There is no link to information about candidates the PAC supports.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's PAC site, www.dashpac.com, is the most comprehensive and most frequently updated of all the 2004 hopefuls. Like Lieberman's site, it has a full biography, links to Daschle's recent speeches, news about the Democratic majority.
But it also has extensive information about DASHPAC candidates, like California Assembly leader Kevin Shelley. A map of the United States contains embedded links to state DASHPAC home pages, where voters can find out who's running where. The news ticker at the bottom is mix of Democratic headlines and stories about Daschle himself.