STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Barack Obama's decision on public financing may be a sign of the future. Obama says he will not take public funds for the general election campaign, and Republican John McCain says he will. That means McCain gets more than $84 million from the government for the fall campaign. Obama thinks he can raise more on his own. NPR's Peter Overby reports on what that decision means.
PETER OVERBY: The match between Obama and McCain shapes up as the most unevenly financed presidential race since 1972. That's the year that Richard Nixon ran for re-election, raised unprecedented sums of money, and spawned the campaign scandals that led Congress to enact public financing.
Obama will be the first candidate of either party ever to turn down public money for the fall campaign. He's counting on his new Internet-driven strategies for raising cash. He talked about it all yesterday in a video to his supporters.
(Soundbite of video)
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): We won the Democratic nomination by relying on ordinary people coming together to achieve extraordinary things.
OVERBY: That's true of Obama's 1.5 million donors today. But Fred Wertheimer, head of the watchdog group Democracy 21, says it didn't start out that way.
Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER (Democracy 21): In the year 2007, 54 percent of his contributions came in contributions of a thousand dollars or more, and much of that money was raised by bundlers.
OVERBY: Bundlers are people who solicit friends and colleagues for checks that they bundle for delivery to the campaign. And Wertheimer says Obama wouldn't be where he is without them.
Mr. WERTHEIMER: He has not created a parallel system of public financing.
OVERBY: But Obama has created by far the largest system of small, voluntary donors that American politics has ever seen. It's changing the landscape for 2008 and beyond.
Yesterday, McCain immediately accused Obama of breaking his word. McCain's campaign said Obama had promised to negotiate with McCain so that they'd both take public money and limit spending by their national party committees. Obama's people said McCain had gamed the primary public financing system to get a four-month head start and also unleashed independent groups to run attack ads against Obama.
Bradley Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, says they're both putting a principled face on a stark reality. He starts with Obama.
Mr. BRADLEY SMITH (Former Chairman, Federal Election Commission): He's not taking the government money because he can raise a lot of private money and outspend John McCain. And anything else he says is just political claptrap. I don't blame him for that any more than I blame John McCain. John McCain is taking the government money because it is the best deal for him to compete in this election.
OVERBY: Whoever wins in November, advocates of public financing say they'll lobby Congress next year to fix the system. And both candidates do have legislative records of support for public financing. Brad Smith is among the skeptics.
Mr. SMITH: There will be no clamor whatsoever from the American people to have more of their tax dollars spent on political campaigns.
OVERBY: Smith and others also ask whether public financing is still relevant. They point to Obama's armies of small donors and to the independent groups that are increasingly aggressive in campaigns.
Just one example from this week: MoveOn.org and the public employees union AFSCME put up this anti-McCain ad: a young mother holding her baby.
(Soundbite of television ad)
Unidentified Woman: John McCain, when you say you would stay in Iraq for 100 years, were you counting on Alex? Because if you were, you can't have him.
OVERBY: A week's worth of airtime cost $543,000. Nothing in the public financing law would help either McCain or Obama counter ads like that.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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