WASHINGTON -- More murky, unregulated money is finding its way through legal loopholes into congressional races, and Utah's 2nd District race last year was a prime example of it.

That's according to a national study released Monday. It was conducted by political scientists nationwide but was coordinated by Brigham Young University. It was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.While laws tightly limit direct donations to federal campaigns, no limits exist on "soft money" given to state parties for "party-building" efforts.

But they affect candidates through such things as get-out-the-vote drives, polling or pro-party ads.

Also exempt from federal donation limits is "issue advertising" by advocacy groups that may attack or praise candidates' stands on specific issues.

BYU political science professor David Magleby, the principal investigator, told a seminar at the National Press Club that such unregulated money was increasingly important in 16 tight 1998 races studied -- and allowed end runs around normal donation caps.

Ironically, he said, it may be more popular because Senate investigations into President Clinton's controversial solicitation and use of it in 1996 showed how lucrative it can be -- but didn't shut off loopholes that allow it.

"Congressional investigations of soft money in 1996, we think, had the ironic effect of only encouraging additional soft-money fund raising for 1998," Magleby said.

"The inaction of Congress on the soft-money loophole, and the perception that issue advertising by advocacy groups will continue to grow created a mind set that accentuated the soft-money chase that continued to grow in 1998," he said.

Magleby, in a report about the study, wrote, "Parties double-dip into the contribution pool by seeking federally limited 'hard dollars' (for direct use on federal campaigns) and unlimited soft money contributions from the same donors.

"Some of these same donors like labor and business groups also give money to the state party 'soft money' accounts, as happened in the Utah 2nd Congressional District" race between Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, and Democrat Lily Eskelsen.

Use of soft money allowed national party committees -- which by law can give only $10,000 in direct donations to federal candidates -- to funnel much more to them.

For example, the National Republican Congressional Committee spent about $200,000 and TV ads and on five mailers for Cook. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $140,000 on ads to help Eskelsen.

On top of that, some advocacy groups run unregulated "issue ads" to greatly exceed the $10,000 that political action committees could normally give directly to a candidate.

For example, Magleby noted that when Cook refused to sign a term-limit pledge sought by Americans for Limited Terms -- but Eskelsen did -- that group spent a whopping $380,000 in efforts against Cook.

That included $250,000 in television ads in the final three weeks of the election, plus $100,000 on three mailers and $30,000 on phone banks. The study said voters were confused about who was behind the efforts and thought the ads were by Eskelsen.

So, the study noted, candidates may "be held responsible for attacks on their opponents but in fact may have no control over them."

The study also said use of such unregulated and unlimited money makes it tough to see how much is being spent to influence an election and by whom. "For example, Americans for Limited Terms may be funded by a single contributor or many people."

That wasn't the only advocacy group using unregulated money in the 2nd District race. The study also noted that the National Rifle Association spent $51,370 in unregulated "independent expenditures" directly calling for Cook's re-election.

Also the Utah Credit Union and Associated Builders and Contractors ran ads and provided volunteers for Cook. And the AFL-CIO conducted a phone bank and a get-out-the-vote drive for Eskelsen.

Also, the Utah Democratic Party received about $270,000 from out-of-state sources it used to help the Eskelsen campaign, including an extensive get-out-the-vote effort.

In total, the study said parties and interest groups spent more than $650,000 for Eskelsen and about $280,000 for Cook.

The study predicted even more use of such money in the future unless Congress plugs the loopholes. It predicts a continued shift away from a "candidate-centered system of elections to an interest-group and parties-centered system."