- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Those three dollars you’ve set aside in your tax returns as a good deed toward clean presidential elections? Nobody wants them anymore.

Strategists from both parties estimate the White House race in 2008 could cost each nominee $500 million — far more than the Presidential Election Campaign Fund can afford. As a result, this next presidential campaign could mark the first time in 30 years that the Democratic and Republican nominees turn down the fund’s millions in both the primary and the general elections.

“The public financing system was a great system, but it’s broke,” said Steve Elmendorf, the deputy campaign manager for Democrat John Kerry when the Massachusetts senator ran for the presidency in 2004.

“There’s not enough money in it anymore. It’s highly unlikely that any candidate in any party will stay in the public funding system,” Mr. Elmendorf said.

The decision has precedent.

George W. Bush declined the public money in the 2000 Republican primaries, when he was a first-time candidate, and did so again in 2004, when he sought re-election. Mr. Kerry and fellow Democrat Howard Dean made the same choice in 2004.

Still, Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry each accepted $74.5 million from the fund to run their general election campaigns. For 2008, the amount could reach $85 million per nominee.

The fund, which is expected to have about $200 million by the end of 2007, still would help pay for party presidential nominating conventions and assist primary candidates who do not raise large amounts of money.

More than ever, the first cut in the presidential sweepstakes will not result from the early contests of 2008, but from candidates’ ability to stockpile huge amounts of money the previous year. That means potential candidates will ramp up their fundraising far sooner than they ever have in the past.

“The 2008 presidential election is going to be the Wild West,” said Michael Toner, the Republican chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC). “Upward of $500 million is the likely goal of presidential fundraising per candidate.”

So far, the best test of potential candidates’ fundraising is the political action committees (PACs) they have formed to probe the political environment and seed the landscape with donations. That money cannot be transferred into their election accounts.

Of Republicans considering a run, the three with the best financed PACs as of this month are Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

At the top of the Democratic money list are former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, Mr. Kerry, and Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Evan Bayh of Indiana and Barack Obama of Illinois.

Mrs. Clinton stands out above the rest.

As of Aug. 23, she also had $22 million in her Senate campaign fund. She can transfer this money directly into a presidential contest.

Under current rules, no one can take the public money without agreeing to strict spending restrictions. Had Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry accepted the money in 2004, they would have been limited to spending less than $45 million each in the primaries. Operating outside the system, Mr. Bush raised nearly $270 million and Mr. Kerry $235 million.

Campaign strategists and campaign finance analysts say they can imagine the new crop of presidential candidates concluding that the entire government handout is not worth the trouble.

“Anybody who takes federal funding will do so at their own peril, because they will be dramatically outspent,” said Tom Rath, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire.

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