Primary Jostling Complicates Campaign Cash Rules

With the presidential candidates running hard, the primary schedule is still up in the air, as states try to push to the head of the line. Depending on how the jostling plays out, it could make it harder — or easier — for candidates to raise cash.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

So we have a better idea who's running - we do not know which states will decide their fate. The primary schedule is still uncertain. Florida has moved its state up to January 29th, and other states are also pushing to the head of the line. Iowa traditionally goes first, and if other states keep scheduling their vote sooner, Iowans could end up holding their caucuses before the New Year. This could have some strange effects on the campaign and on the race for campaign dollars.

Here is NPR's Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY: First of all, there's Florida, rich in votes and loaded with cash - more than $7 million, so far, for the Democratic contenders. The Democratic National Committee is leaning on Florida Democrats to forego the states January 29th primary date and pick their presidential delegates at least a week later. If they don't comply, the DNC says Florida would lose its convention delegates.

But if delegates would be at risk, dollars would not. The candidates could still visit the Sunshine State for every fundraising event they could schedule. And as Stuart(ph) Radson(ph) points out, it's a thin line these days between fundraising and other campaigning. He knows. He's a Hill raiser, someone who's raised at least $100,000 for Hillary Clinton.

STUART RADSON: They can have fundraisers at 25 to $100 per person. They get fundraisers at 1,000 to $2,000 a person. As long as they're involved in fundraising activity, the events that they go to, there would not be a penalty.

OVERBY: In the Obama camp, state finance chair, Kirk Wagar, had a conference call yesterday morning with his state finance committee.

KIRK WAGAR: And we had record turnout because I think people were interested in hearing what the campaign thought and where we're going to go.

OVERBY: And as Wager says.

WAGAR: We are in this to change the country and change the world...

OVERBY: ...not to play state politics in Florida. But that's not the only potential twist in presidential money-raising. A lucrative new opportunity could present itself if campaign fundraisers are feeling audacious. The law limits donors to $2,300 for the whole primary season. Some 42,000 donors in both parties have already maxed out. But the law predates this crazy schedule and it literally applies the limit to primaries occurring in the same calendar year as the general election. That is 2008.

Now, suppose that Iowa move its caucuses to sometime in 2007, could campaigns go back to their maxed out donors and ask for more?

LARRY NOBEL: If somebody sees a crack in the door, it's hard to stop them from opening it up.

OVERBY: That's Larry Nobel, former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission. Nobody's about to announce they would do it, but people are talking about it. The payoff is hard to ignore. Clinton has more than 10,000 maxed out donors. They'd potentially be worth $23 million and change. Overall, the Democrats could tap nearly $54 million, the Republicans nearly $44 million.

The Federal Election Commission could head this off with a preemptive policy statement. Otherwise, someone would have to ask for an advisory opinion, or the commission would have to cite someone for busting the limit and let the lawyers fight it out.

Again, Larry Nobel.

NOBEL: I mean, clearly, there is an issue out there. The question will be politically, in part, whether anybody wants to take that risk without asking the FEC first.

OVERBY: For that much money, they just might.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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INSKEEP: You can get a look at the 2008 primary calendar, as it stands today, at npr.org.

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