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Public Election Financial Support May Become Nonexistent by 2008

By David D. Kirkpatrick


The public financing system for presidential campaigns, a post-Watergate initiative hailed for decades as the best way to rid politics of the corrupting influence of money, may have quietly died over the weekend.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York became the first candidate since the program began in 1976 to forgo public financing for both the primary and the general election because of the spending limits that come with the federal money. By declaring her confidence that she could raise far more than the roughly $150 million the system would provide for the 2008 presidential primaries and general election, Clinton makes it difficult for other serious candidates to participate in the system without putting themselves at a significant disadvantage.

Officials of the Federal Election Commission and advisers to several campaigns say they expect the two candidates who reach Election Day 2008 will raise more than $500 million apiece. Including money raised by other primary candidates, the total amount spent on the presidential election could easily exceed $1 billion.

People involved in the Republican primary campaign of Sen. John McCain of Arizona say he, too, is beginning to seek private donations for the primary and general elections, albeit with the option of returning them. A longtime proponent of campaign finance change, McCain has recently removed his name as a co-sponsor of a bill to expand the presidential public financing program.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, another Republican primary contender, has already decided to forgo public financing for the primaries. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, a rival to Clinton for the Democratic nomination, declined to comment, as did spokesmen for several other candidates.

In a sense, Clinton was merely confirming what many in Washington already knew: That the public financing system has failed to keep pace with the torrents of money flowing toward the presidential elections. In 2004, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, each opted out of the system for the primaries but not the general election. By accepting the public financing, they had to agree not to raise or spend any private money for the period after their nominating conventions.

But when Bush raised some $270 million, and Kerry about $235 million, it became clear that major-party candidates could raise far more from private donors than from the public system.

“The 2008 race will be the longest and most expensive presidential election in American history,” said Michael E. Toner, chairman of the Federal Election Commission. “Top-tier candidates are going to have to raise $100 million by the end of 2007 to be a serious candidate.” He added: “We are looking at a $100 million entry fee.”

The turn away from public financing is the twilight of a system once welcomed as a new era of clean government.