- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2008

Democrats said they will file a federal challenge today demanding that Sen. John McCain’s presidential bid be forced to use public financing — a move that, if successful, would cripple his campaign for the next six months.

Six months after applying to take part in the system, Mr. McCain, the all-but-certain Republican nominee, is trying to back out of it. But Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said yesterday that the senator from Arizona already has benefited from public financing and is required to stick to its rules for the remainder of the primary season.

“John McCain cannot unilaterally withdraw from his spending agreement,” Mr. Dean told reporters on a conference call announcing the challenge. “What does this say about John McCain that he applied for the law, knowing he wasn’t going to keep it?”

Federal Election Commission Chairman David Mason already has said that Mr. McCain cannot withdraw until he answers whether he used the promise of federal funds as collateral for loans he secured last year.

Mr. Dean said Mr. McCain also benefited by receiving access to state primary ballots once he accepted public funding. Mr. Dean said during his own 2004 Democratic presidential bid that he had to spend several million dollars to do that.

Candidates who accept public financing for the primaries get access to matching funds, but have to abide by strict national and state-by-state spending limits. This year the national limit will be about $54 million, a figure Mr. McCain is approaching quickly.

Mr. McCain’s campaign said he hasn’t received any money and didn’t directly use the promise of financing to secure loans.

“The right to withdraw from the system is a constitutional right, which prevents the FEC from blocking Sen. McCain’s withdrawal without cause,” the campaign said.

The campaign also said Mr. Dean set precedent in 2003 by applying for public financing then withdrawing from the system.

“Howard Dean’s hypocrisy is breathtaking,” said spokesman Brian Rogers.

Mr. Dean said he never received anything of benefit from his loan, which was why he was able to withdraw.

Mr. Mason also says the FEC must formally vote to accept Mr. McCain’s withdrawal. That proves to be a problem, because four of the commission’s six membership slots are vacant and the Senate is squabbling over how to fill them.

If forced to abide by the system, Mr. McCain will have to all but shut down his campaign until the Republican National Convention in September.

That would be crippling because neither Sen. Barack Obama nor Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, his potential Democratic opponents, will take part in the public system, leaving them free to raise and spend. They could swamp Mr. McCain with television ads to which he could not afford to respond.

Candidates apply for public financing early in the process, but the money isn’t disbursed until later this year. As long as candidates haven’t benefited from the money, they are free with withdraw.

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