Word that Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign may consider accepting public financing for the Republican primary is a signal something has gone seriously awry with the campaign and would represent a severe handicap to his party’s chances in the general election if Mr. McCain becomes the nominee.
By turning to taxpayer funds to bail out his campaign in the near term, Mr. McCain would be buying into a system that limits how much money he can raise and spend during the next year.
That could leave him hundreds of millions of dollars behind the Democratic nominee, who likely would not have the same constraint and could spend freely in the spring and summer, opening up an insurmountable lead.
Mr. McCain has raised the smallest amount of campaign cash among the top Republican candidates — $13 million in the first quarter and $11.2 million in the past three months. Officials say his campaign will report just $2 million cash on hand in its next report to the Federal Election Commission.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s fundraising has slowed, and he pumped $6 million of his own funds into his account.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s fundraising also dropped from its March pace.
Stressing that no decision has been made, Mr. McCain’s top campaign operatives raised the public-financing option in a conference call with reporters this week.
Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, said that to make such a move this late is a signal Mr. McCain’s campaign is well off track. If the senator from Arizona takes public funding, he would be able to spend only about $20 million over the next 14 months on his presidential campaign.
“If he had remotely thought about public funding, he could not possibly have wanted to spend $23 million in the first six months of the odd-numbered year,” he said, adding that the system is stacked against candidates who are not top-tier or rich enough to pour in their own money.
Terry Nelson, Mr. McCain’s campaign manager, told reporters that the expected $100 million this year isn’t materializing because prospective donors are angry about the senator’s support of the failed immigration bill and other issues.
Mr. Nelson said the campaign is plotting ways to be competitive with Democrats, even at a financial disadvantage, and “we’ll be able to do what is necessary to be competitive throughout the summer.”
The public-financing system offers matching funds from a pool funded voluntarily by taxpayers to candidates who agree to spending limits. Many candidates find that the limits are too low for them to compete with others who opt out of the limits.
The limits for the 2008 general election won’t be set for months. For the primary contests that begin in January, the FEC has pegged the national limit to $41 million — less than each of the two top Democrats have raised to date.
In 2004, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, raised more than $190 million in the five months between clinching the nomination and the beginning of his party’s national convention — the point at which general election funds can be used. A publicly financed candidate would not be able to do that.
Mr. Nelson said calculations show that the McCain campaign would qualify for about $6 million in funds so far. A McCain spokesman would not say how or when the campaign would make a final decision.
Some Republicans speaking privately said Mr. McCain might as well pull out of the race.
“Done,” said one Republican strategist. “$2 million cash on hand? That doesn’t buy you lunch. As expensive as his campaign is, $2 million isn’t going to get him through the next couple weeks.”
Bradley A. Smith, a former FEC chairman and a professor at Capital University Law School in Ohio, said taking matching funds also ties Mr. McCain to state-by-state limits.
Final allocations will be set next year, but his campaign probably would be limited to less than $1 million spent in New Hampshire and about $1.5 million in Iowa. Mr. McCain could exceed those totals well before the end of the year.
“Election lawyers would say if you’re taking public money you’re branding yourself a loser,” Mr. Smith said.