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Microsoft rounding up supporters

The software giant lines up a new political ally in Washington in its bid to ward off DOJ antitrust enforcers, who are considering filing another lawsuit.

Microsoft has lined up a new political ally in its bid to ward off Justice Department antitrust enforcers, who are seriously considering filing another lawsuit targeting allegedly anticompetitive practices by the software giant.

In a lengthy and spirited address that took aim at "Clinton antitrust lawyers and bureaucrats," Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-North Carolina) voiced his support for Microsoft. His statement, made on the Senate floor yesterday, was in sharp contrast to new criticism Sen. Orrin Hatch leveled at the Redmond, Washington, software maker on the same day.

Faircloth owns a farm in North Carolina and has owned other small businesses in the past. From 1977 to 1983, he headed North Carolina's Department of Commerce. He sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairs the Financial Institutions Subcommittee of the Senate Banking Committee.

His remarks also came on the same day that Microsoft chairman and chief executive Bill Gates met with top Justice Department antitrust officials to state his case as to why he believes a suit is unwarranted, and on the same day that Microsoft organized a rally in New York City where representatives from 60 companies echoed similar sentiments.

"The Justice Department's newly aggressive antitrust division is waging a slick, media-intensive antitrust campaign against Microsoft," said Faircloth, a first-term senator up for re-election. "Frankly, I am fearful that this is the government's first attempt to begin regulating America's high-tech industry. In my opinion, this would be a disaster."

Both Microsoft and its competitors have been lobbying hard to win the support of politicians. Microsoft has won the support of lawmakers from Washington state, while Hatch, who represents a state that is home to some of Microsoft's most bitter rivals, has been the company's biggest critic inside the Beltway.

But so far, both sides have been most successful in lining up support from politicians who no longer are in office.

Microsoft, for instance, counts former congressman Vin Weber, now a consultant with the conservative think tank Empower America, which he codirects. Other pro-Microsoft lobbyists include Haley Barbour, former chair of the Republican National Committee; Grover Norquist, who heads a group called Americans for Tax Reform; and former Congressman Tom Downey, a close ally of Vice President Al Gore who is now at the law firm Downey Chandler.

Microsoft competitors recently lined up assistance from former Kansas senator and former presidential candidate Bob Dole, and from Robert Bork, a former appeals court judge. They also receive support from former Federal Trade Commissioner Christine Varney and Kevin Arquit, a former attorney with the FTC.

Faircloth's endorsement could not come at a better time for Microsoft. Just yesterday, top executives from Compaq Computer, CompUSA, and Visio warned at the software giant's highly orchestrated rally in the Big Apple that a suit that delayed the release of Windows 98 would have dire consequences for the personal computer industry and the U.S. economy at large.

And last night, Bill Gates and his attorneys made a similar pitch in his meeting with top antitrust enforcers in the Justice Department, a company spokesman said. The two-hour meeting, held at the Washington, D.C. offices of Microsoft's outside law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, was arranged at Gates's request.

"Bill felt since he was scheduled to be on the East Coast already, there was a good opportunity to talk directly with Justice Department officials about the importance of protecting the industry's right to innovate and integrate new features into our products," said Microsoft's Mark Murray. "We think it was a constructive meeting."

Although Faircloth's support doesn't hurt Microsoft, it might not help much, either, said Tom Lenard, a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank that has been critical of Microsoft in the past.

"There is this political campaign and this public relations campaign, and I'm sure the Justice Department is not totally immune from that," he explained. "But I'd assume [Justice Department officials] are trying to look at this pretty analytically and apply the antitrust laws as best they can."