A John McCain-Barack Obama matchup will pit a pair of self-styled reformers in the race for president this fall, which explains why they are spending so much of the early rounds trying to outmuscle each other to prove who is tougher on this political season's whipping boy, the Washington lobbyist.
But lobbyists and many independent analysts view the candidates' antilobbyist rhetoric as grandstanding to score political points at the expense of the vast, multibillion-dollar advocacy industry that is sometimes called the fourth branch of the United States government.
"It's overly simplistic and more demagogic than analytic to say that the solution to all the problems in Washington is to get rid of the lobbyists," said Nicholas W. Allard, a partner, lobbyist, and cochairman of the public policy department at Patton Boggs, a Washington law firm and lobbying powerhouse. "Lobbyists are not the source of congressional gridlock, the source of bitter partisanship, or the reason candidates have to spend so much time raising money."
There are 41,386 lobbyists registered in the nation's capital, according to the Senate Office of Public Records. Most toil in obscurity, but the best known to the general public is also the most notorious, Jack Abramoff, who was sentenced to prison two years ago as the ringleader of a lobbying scandal that ensnared a dozen others.
Allard said lobbyists provide valuable information to government policy makers, but that even with stricter rules enacted last year to curb abuses, "there is no safeguard against someone who will intentionally violate the law or break a rule."
McCain's work as a Senate committee chairman exposed many of Abramoff's misdeeds, but lately the Republican from Arizona has been deflecting news stories about dozens of lobbyists working for his campaign, including his campaign manager and chief adviser, both of whom no longer represent clients. Several others, including one of his chief fund-raisers were forced to cut ties because they had conflicts or represented controversial clients.
Two weeks ago, the campaign instituted a new ethics and disclosure policy, which McCain called "the most comprehensive and most transparent policy concerning lobbyist activities." He challenged Obama, his likely Democratic opponent, to follow suit.
Obama, who has declined contributions from lobbyists and appears to have far fewer ties to them, has been sniping at McCain's lobbyist connections. The Republican National Committee has been pushing back on McCain's behalf, pointing out that several former lobbyists hold key posts on Obama's campaign staff and more than a dozen active lobbyists are volunteers or advisers.
Independent Washington analysts scoff at what they see as exploiting an easy target.
"This is playing to the Hollywood image of lobbyists, guys in $1,000 alligator shoes and $2,000 suits who hang out in the hallway of the Ways and Means Committee and get tax concessions for fat cats," said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University who does scholarly research by "embedding" himself in congressional offices. "It's a cheap shot. . . . For every Jack Abramoff there are a lot of people lobbying for causes that are quite respectable and noble."
"There are people lobbying for research funds to study orphan diseases, and it took 12 years of people advocating for passage of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act," Baker said. "There's nothing ignoble about that."
Lobbyists play an important role, protected by the Constitution, in the debate over national policy, others note.
"You cannot have a reasonable policy-making process without having competition among a variety of ideas as expressed by organized interests," said James A. Thurber, professor of government and director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. "It's important to have that battle."
The thrust of the candidates' rhetoric, said Thurber, a specialist in lobbying, "is a populist argument appealing to Americans' ignorance about how policy is made in Washington. . . . This broad brush approach is disingenuous by both candidates."
Obama and McCain frequently flog the lobbying industry as a vehicle for the corrupting influence of money in Washington, and each can claim some credit for last year's lobbying reform bill that bans gifts to lawmakers and aides, requires more public disclosure about fund-raising, and imposes harsh penalties for violations.
But Obama and his supporters have pressed the attack in an effort to claim the high ground against McCain, who for much of his congressional career honed an image as a reform-minded maverick. The liberal activist group, MoveOn.org, weighed in with a Web ad attacking Charlie Black, a McCain senior adviser for representing a series of brutal foreign leaders in the past.
To gain an edge, each campaign employs one-upmanship to disparage the opposition.
"John McCain has led the fight against special interests in Washington, never asked for a single earmark and strongly opposed the oil lobby-driven 2005 Energy Bill," McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds wrote in an e-mail. "Barack Obama's record fails on all three of those issues and shows weak leadership that is not ready to make change."
"Senator McCain waited nearly 15 months to implement a lobbying policy that his own staff said was developed just to fix a 'perception problem,' " Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said in an e-mail. Obama outlined the restrictions on lobbyists that would govern his campaign and administration last year, he said.
The debate often conflates criticisms of the various activities of lobbyists in politics beyond their formal role as advocates for policies - as financial contributors and fund-raisers including the lobbyists Allard calls "access peddlers and door openers."
In its hiring policy, the Obama campaign requires lobbyists to unregister before joining the staff but imposes no such restriction on lobbyists who volunteer or serve as unpaid advisers.
While Obama's policy rejects contributions from active federal lobbyists, it does not prohibit contributions from their family members, co-workers in law firms, or clients. Obama's campaign has set records in small-dollar, online donations, but he has also raised vast sums from Wall Street executives and other special interests.
Tallies by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics show McCain has received $655,576 in lobbyist money, and Obama has taken in $161,927 from lobbyists at the state or local level or family members of federal lobbyists.
Monitoring groups have been highly critical of fund-raising by lobbyists for candidates. The research group Public Citizen has identified 70 McCain fund-raising, or bundlers, who are lobbyists, most of them currently active, compared with 14 Obama lobbyist bundlers, none of whom are actively lobbying.
Still, McCain has received credit for his legislative record on lobbying issues.
In February, when news stories began tagging McCain's lobbyist-laden campaign staff, Public Citizen came to his defense, stating: "Regardless of how many lobbyists are working on his campaign or raising money for him, John McCain has fought for 14 long, hard years for reforms that seriously limit lobbyists' power."
Public Citizen's Craig Holman praised as "a remarkable step" Obama's decision to shun lobbyist donations and said McCain's stringent new ethics policy was "a prudent move" to counter criticism and protect his image.
Holman says with a laugh that as Public Citizen's lobbyist for campaign finance reform, he is "one of the good lobbyists."