Public Campaign Funding: Liberation or Straitjacket?

Has anyone ever turned down $74 million in cash, let alone someone running for president?

Both presidential campaigns insist it will not happen this year, either. But that has not stopped the speculation that President Bush or Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry — or both — will forgo public financing this fall and finance the stretch drive to Election Day entirely with private money.

Public financing was created after the Watergate scandals of the 1970s as the ultimate good-government fix. The idea was to give the major party candidates tens of millions of dollars (raised from a check-off on the federal income tax form), if they agreed to swear off private money in the fall campaign.

It's been an offer too good to refuse — until, perhaps, this year.

This year, both the incumbent and the challenger have proven so prodigiously successful at raising money that either or both could count on raising more than the $74 million they stand to get from the government. And since either could do it, each fears the other will do it — leaving the guy with the public funds stuck with the short end of the stick.

Kerry has to make up his mind about this first. That's because the Treasury check customarily arrives the morning after the candidate accepts the nomination. For Kerry, the magic moment would be July 30; for the president, Sept. 3.

Before then, the candidates and their advisers have to consider three elements.

The first is the political risk of walking away from "clean money" and into the arms of private donors. That risk is zero for Mr. Bush. In 2000, he became the first candidate since Watergate to win the nomination after rejecting public funds for the primary campaign (he took the public funds in the fall). By and large, Republicans don't care about the scoldings of reform advocates.

But time was when a Democrat — especially one with a record supporting campaign finance reform — would pay dearly for taking that step. Would Kerry? He did not seem to lose any votes when he followed Mr. Bush and Democrat Howard Dean in opting out of public financing for the primaries.

In fact, if Kerry had taken public financing in the primaries, he'd have hit the spending limit long ago, and his campaign would be broke and silent right now. Although Mr. Bush has raised more money overall in this cycle, Kerry's fundraising in calendar 2004 has swamped the president's. The Kerry campaign has averaged $1 million a day or better since March, roughly double Mr. Bush's take in that time. In the three days after Sen. John Edwards joined the Democratic ticket, the Kerry campaign says it collected $3.3 million in Internet fundraising alone.

So, given the Democrats' roiling anger at the Bush administration, it's hard to imagine them feeling guilty about filling Kerry's coffers one more time.

The second element is just math. The public grant is a good chunk of money — $74.4 million this year, with no fundraising overhead. To equal that amount net, a candidate would have to gross at least $100 million.

But again, that's not as much an obstacle as you might think. As of May 31, the Bush-Cheney campaign had raised $214.8 million; Kerry (now Kerry-Edwards) had raised $148.5 million.

Any donor can give a federal candidate $2,000 per election — that is, for the primary and again for the general election. The Campaign Finance Institute notes that $2,000 contributions account for 30 percent of Kerry's primary money and 51 percent of Mr. Bush's. So the candidates can go back to each of those people for a second $2,000 check. Anyone who can give $2,000 once can probably do it again in a heartbeat.

But now the third element: timing. Here's where it gets interesting.

The Democrats hold their nominating convention late in July, the Republicans a month later. Kerry's campaign worries that their candidate will already be spending down his public funds in August, while Bush-Cheney are still raising and spending their private, primary-season money.

But the flip side of that is that if Kerry goes with private donors, he'll get a five-week head start on his $100 million target. Mr. Bush, assuming he followed suit, would have just 60 days to catch up.

And those are 60 days he'd probably rather spend stumping the battleground states where the polls are close and the outcome is in the balance. Of the top five money states for each candidate, just Florida is also a battleground state. [The other top dollar states are: New York, California, Texas and Virginia for Mr. Bush; New York, California, Massachusetts and Illinois for Kerry.]

Candidates who take public funding often talk about its liberating effect. They don't have to raise money any more, which means no more time wasted schmoozing with donors instead of meeting voters and smiling at television cameras.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a publicly financed candidate, arguably won because she kept campaigning in the final week, while her opponent took an entire day to go off and raise money in Texas. The same logic could apply here.

So for each candidate — especially Mr. Bush, with his foreshortened schedule between convention and Election Day — the scheduling conflicts would be a problem.

Still, if Kerry opted out of public financing, could the president resist?

Both campaigns insist that the $74 million in public funds is plenty and that they can win on that budget. But then, we'd expect them to say that again and again, right up until they decided to stop saying it.

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