MANCHESTER, N.H. – Republican presidential candidate Duncan Hunter, a California congressman, has used his political action committee to run New Hampshire TV ads introducing himself to voters -- in what some specialists say could be a violation of campaign finance laws.
In the ads, Hunter walks beside a giant wire fence and calls for it to be extended along hundreds of miles of the US border with Mexico. Looking into the camera he asks for viewers to "join with me, Duncan Hunter, at Peace Through Strength. Let's make sure Homeland Security builds the border fence."
At the end of the ad, viewers are encouraged to visit the PAC's website, peacethroughstrengthpac.com. If viewers to go to the site a page appears asking them to "please visit Duncan Hunter for President 2008" and providing the link to his homepage, a move that implies the PAC's endorsement, another potential violation of federal law.
Campaign-finance laws limit the use of PACs, which have much higher limits on individual donations than those imposed on presidential campaigns, to no more than $5,000 in spending on any presidential candidacy.
But in New Hampshire alone, Hunter's Peace Through Strength PAC made two separate ad buys on WMUR-TV in Manchester totaling $17,575. Both purchases were made after Hunter opened his presidential committee, which is supposed to cover the costs of his run for the White House.
"He is in some pretty dangerous [legal] territory," said Jan Witold Baran, a noted campaign law lawyer who served as general counsel to the Republican National Committee and to President George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign.
Hunter's campaign spokesman, Roy Tyler, said the PAC-finaned ad is simply an "issue ad" and does not promote Hunter's presidential campaign.
He said the campaign's lawyers approved the decision to run the spot.
"We believe they are just issue ads and as such we can run them where we want as often as we want," said Tyler, noting that Hunter does not identify himself as a presidential candidate.
Among those Tyler said he asked was Michelle Kelley, an election lawyer who serves as the PAC's treasurer. Kelley declined to comment for this story.
Politicians considering presidential races often have used political action committees to pay for travel to early primary states, hire early staff, and build support by contributing money to people running for state or local offices. But once a candidate forms a presidential committees -- as Hunter has -- he is required to use campaign-committee accounts for all money spent running for office.
The advantage of using a PAC is that donors can contribute up to $5,000 per person a year versus a campaign account where donors are limited to just $2,300 per person per election cycle.
"I don't think [Hunter's use of both committees] is a loophole -- it might be an outright violation," said Dr. Stephen Weissman, Associate Director for Policy at the Campaign Finance Institute in Washington.
The Federal Election Commission has the jurisdiction to enforce violations of campaign law. It fined the 1980 campaign of former President Ronald Reagan for using a political action committee to defray some of its expenses.
Hunter, the former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is a self-described "longshot" for the Republican presidential nomination. But campaign-finance specialists said that if he gets away with using PAC money for ads promoting himself then such expenditures will soon become routine, with candidates using PACS to bypass limits on funding presidential campaigns.
"If the FEC doesn't enforce this and do it in an airtight way then others will surely exploit it," said Ray La Raja, a political science professor at University of Massachusetts at Amherst who has written extensively on the issue.