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The presidential candidates may be raising insane amounts of money, but this next report is about campaign contributions that the three leading presidential candidates have not taken and may not even want. It's money from the federal public financing system.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: Public financing was meant to liberate presidential candidates from the money chase. But over the past several days, it's just turned into another mallet in the whack-a-mole game of primary season. That's because appealing as the federal funding is, it limits candidates in what they can spend.

Hillary Clinton's campaign accuses Barack Obama of breaking a promise to use public funds in the general election race if he wins the nomination. Here's Clinton's communications director Howard Wolfson.

Mr. HOWARD WOLFSON (Communications director, Hillary Clinton campaign): He pledged earlier in this campaign to opt into the public financing system if he were the nominee, and then he decided, apparently, not to. That is not a promise that he kept.

OVERBY: But Clinton's campaign sidesteps the fact that she's expressed little interest in uses public funds herself. In fact, she's already raised nearly $20 million for the general election, many multiples of Obama's general election fundraising.

Still, Obama's position isn't so clear, either. A year ago, he seemed to make a commitment. He's the one who asked the federal election commission about raising early money for the general election. He said it would only be on a provisional basis. If the Republican nominee opted for public funds, he would, too.

Three months ago, Obama stood his ground on a questionnaire from 20 public interest groups in the Midwest. He wrote, I will progressively pursue an agreement with the Republican.

But now, the Obama campaign says it wasn't a pledge, just an option. The campaign declined to have anyone speak on the record for this story. It calls the whole question of public financing hypothetical, something to be negotiated later with the GOP candidate.

John McCain is on track to be that candidate, and he says he wants to take public funds this fall. He's criticized Obama for hedging. His campaign finance lawyer is Trevor Potter.

Mr. TREVOR POTTER (Campaign Finance Lawyer, John McCain Campaign): I don't know what there is to negotiate. It's pretty straightforward. You either accept the public funding and the restrictions that are in the law or you don't.

OVERBY: What isn't so straightforward is McCain's own stance. He rejected public funds for the primaries. Just like Obama and Clinton, he didn't want to get trapped in a system that provides taxpayer funds but restricts spending to $50 million total all the way to the conventions.

Then McCain's campaign fell on hard times. He applied for the primary season matching funds. The SEC approved the application, but McCain never cashed in his certificates. Instead, he went to a bank and got a line of credit. As Potter notes, he did not put up the public financing certificates as collateral.

Mr. POTTER: Many bank loans to presidential candidates were collateralized by public funding. We chose not to.

OVERBY: But then they renegotiated for a bigger line of credit. The loan documents say that if McCain lost the New Hampshire primary and finished more than 10 points behind the winner, then he would have to stay in the race anyway and reapply for public funds, which would become the new collateral.

Lawyer Cleta Mitchell has long criticized McCain's role in overhauling the campaign finance laws.

Ms. CLETA MITCHELL (Lawyer): They got another million dollars with, really, no additional collateral other than a promise that if he didn't do well, they'd go get it from the federal government.

OVERBY: In any event, the provision was never at issue because McCain won New Hampshire. And now all three candidates are feverishly raising private funds. Their reports for January are due by midnight tonight.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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