RENO - Ed Bernstein cares. That's Ed Bernstein the lawyer, not Ed Bernstein the Democrat running for the U.S. Senate. Actually, they are one in the same. But Bernstein the candidate hasn't started any formal campaign advertising yet in the key Western Senate race against former Republican Rep. John Ensign.
Bernstein the lawyer, on the other hand, continues to air the same television ads and plaster the same messages across billboards he's been using for nearly 20 years to promote his practice.
''Ed Bernstein cares,'' legal assistant Maria Fernandez-Atkinson says in the latest sign that went up this week on a Donrey billboard outside the Reno Gazette-Journal building.
Whether the ads cross the line into an area covered by federal election laws is a question now before the Federal Election Commission.
Nevada Republican Party leaders filed a complaint with the FEC last month accusing Bernstein of using the ads to gain an unfair advantage in the race against Ensign.
They say in an addendum to the complaint filed this week that the ads amount to illegal corporate campaign contributions from his law firm, Edward M. Bernstein & Associates in Las Vegas.
''Bernstein has officially filed with the Secretary of State and the FEC, however his face remains on corporate-financed billboards across Nevada and his law firm commercials continue to air touting him as a caring person,'' said Ryan Erwin, executive director of Nevada's Republican Party.
Bernstein maintains he should be able to run his business as he always has. He says the ads have no connection to the campaign and don't carry any campaign themes.
''I think Nevada voters see through this. It's a frivolous political game being played by people who don't want to talk about the issues,'' Bernstein's campaign spokeswoman Kelley Benander said Thursday.
Bernstein says he got the ads pre-approved by a lawyer who should know - Bill Oldaker, former general counsel for the FEC.
''He sought to find where the bright lines were on what he could and couldn't do because he realized that if people wanted to they could file frivolous complaints,'' Oldaker said Thursday from his office in Washington.
The Republicans ''are saying that Bernstein should just fold up his law practice,'' Oldaker said.
''If someone created a business and started advertising, that might be something different. But there is nothing under election law that requires somebody who has a personal service business to change the course of their business if they decide to run for office.''
Bernstein has appeared in his own ads since the early 1980s, when he became one of the first attorneys in Nevada to use television ads. He is known for telling people to ''take the first step.''
His new TV ads, which began in March, also carry the slogan ''Ed Bernstein cares'' and feature other people discussing how he fights for the little guy.
Nevada GOP chairman John Mason claims Bernstein changed his ads to reflect his campaign message after he filed for candidacy.
''He has effectively turned his law firm advertising into a campaign ad,'' Mason said.
GOP leaders liken the ads to ones used by an Ohio lawyer, Joel Hyatt, who ran for the U.S. Senate in 1996. The FEC ruled in 1997 that Hyatt violated campaign contributions law, and the law firm and the campaign paid a $11,000 civil penalty.
But Oldaker said there are key distinctions from the Hyatt case. Hyatt used the same campaign media consultant to make the lawyer ads as he did for his campaign ads. Bernstein will not.
In addition, ''the ads in the Hyatt case were drawn specifically out of issues in the campaign, like health care and crime,'' Oldaker said.
''The ads here have no mention of any issue other than law firm services,'' he said.
''Mason would have us believe that the ads in some way talk about Bernstein's character and that character will be an issue in the campaign. But I think that is fairly thin gruel,'' Oldaker said.
''I don't think the ads go to character. They go to service. Even if they did, it doesn't matter. It wouldn't be violation of election law.''
A spokeswoman for the FEC said Thursday the commission won't comment on a pending complaint. She confirmed that the Hyatt case was the most recent one before the commission that bared any similarity.
Benander said the law firm has stepped up its advertising recently to about one and one-half times the normal rate. But she said that's because the firm just launched the new advertising campaign and that rate was ''typical of new ads starting up.''
Ensign campaign spokesman Mike Slanker said ''it's an amazing coincidence'' that the law firm launched a new campaign and increased its media buys after Bernstein announced his candidacy.