WASHINGTON - The pricetag of politics keeps getting bigger. Candidates, parties and special interests spent more than $2 billion by Labor Day in pursuit of the White House and Congress, according to an Associated Press analysis of campaign spending statistics.
The total, coming even before the traditional fall spending splurge, nearly equaled what was spent for the entire 1996 election, stunning even the most veteran political observers.
''We have lost all meaningful barriers to the flow of money in elections,'' said Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
This year already has seen new marks set for the most money raised by a presidential candidate (more than $100 million by Republican George W. Bush) and spent on a Senate campaign ($35 million by Democrat Jon Corzine in New Jersey).
Party treasuries are swelling and political action committees, the donating arms of special interests, have boosted contributions as congressional candidates rake in record amounts of money.
The net effect has obliterated the boundaries Congress set in the wake of Watergate in an effort to restrain the influence of money on politics.
Critics blame the spiral on court decisions that put free speech ahead of spending limits, and on the Federal Election Commission for not cracking down on the unregulated and unlimited contributions known as soft money.
''This is a $2 billion investment, mostly from special interests and very little of it from ordinary Americans,'' said Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, which advocates campaign finance changes. ''The average person is looking at this and doesn't understand how they can have influence.''
An Associated Press analysis of FEC records and special interest spending statistics by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center indicates that individuals and special interests doled out at least $2.1 billion for the 2000 elections before Labor Day.
The total excludes the $60 million in taxpayer assistance the presidential candidates received for the primaries, or the $67.6 million in federal money that Bush and Vice President Al Gore each received for the fall campaign.
Experts expect spending for the 2000 election cycle, beginning Jan. 1, 1999, to far surpass the $2.4 billion spent in 1996. That would be a final high watermark in a year that already has seen new records set.
Overall, congressional fund-raising through midyear was up 46 percent over four years ago, from $447.7 to $652.7 million.
The political parties, too, are raising record sums. Republican Party committees raised $376 million between Jan. 1, 1999, and June 30, 2000 - a 17 percent boost over 1995-96. The Republican National Committee added $73 million in the next two months.
Democrats raised $268 million through midyear, 24 percent higher than the same period four years ago.
Soft money, the unlimited contributions to the parties from corporations, labor unions and individuals that do not fall under federal limits, is up even more - from $149 million in 1995-96 to $254 million in 1999-2000. That's a 70 percent jump.
To keep up in the money chase, the Democratic National Committee set a new top ticket of $500,000 for its record-setting $26.5 million fund-raiser in May, and the Republican National Committee created a new donor category, the Regents, for those giving at least $250,000.
Meanwhile, PACs gave $167 million between Jan. 1, 1999, and June 30, 2000, up 32 percent over the same period in 1995-96.
Republican fund-raiser Carolyn Machado said candidates are raising so much money because campaigns are becoming more expensive and outside interest groups, such as labor unions and business coalitions, are spending hundreds of millions of dollars themselves trying to influence the election.
These groups have spent an estimated $256 million through Aug. 31, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
''That makes a lot more noise in the campaign,'' Machado said. ''For your message to get through, you have to have more money.''
Corrado cited another reason for the fund-raising explosion - lawmakers facing no real challenge to re-election using the advantage of incumbency to fatten their bank accounts and then diverting some of the money to their political parties or colleagues in tougher races.
Many lawmakers also have set up their own leadership PACs to raise additional funds. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has raised $3.1 million for his committee while House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas; Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.; House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, each have raised more than $1 million.