- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The most expensive presidential race in history is over, but the debate on public campaign financing is heating up, and the program’s future in anything but certain.

With the stunning fundraising success of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, who raised about $639 million without taking public money, many political experts say 2008 could be the last presidential election that a major-party candidate accepts public campaign financing unless the program is overhauled.

Mr. Obama’s campaign war chest was almost twice as large as Republican rival Sen. John McCain’s $335 million. But because Mr. McCain accepted the $84 million available in public financing in the general election, he was prohibited from raising private money.

So when Mr. Obama raised a monthly record of $153 million in September, Mr. McCain was unable to appeal to the public for fresh donations.

Thomas E. Mann, an election specialist with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said that without significant revisions to the program only minor-party candidates would be likely to accept public money in 2012.

“It’s been dying out for a number of election cycles,” Mr. Mann said. “The old formula of tying public money to spending limits doesn’t work.”

Neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. McCain accepted public money - and the spending restrictions that go along with it - prior to their nomination as their parties’ presidential candidates.

But Mr. Obama was the first major-party presidential nominee to decline public money since the funding program was first instituted 32 years ago.

Mr. McCain, who co-wrote a major overhaul of campaign financing with Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold in 2002, said he accepted the public money because of his long-standing advocacy for limits on campaign finances.

Both Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama last year indicated they would accept public financing for the general election if the other party’s nominee did as well. But Mr. Obama changed his position after donations to his campaign reached record highs during the primary season.

Much of Mr. Obama’s fundraising success has been attributed to small donations handled over the Internet. His campaign reported it had 632,000 new donors in September - many via the Internet, and most for less than $100.

The public campaign fundraising system was set up in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal in an attempt to limit the influence of money in politics. Until this year, it had been used by every major-party presidential nominee in the general election season since 1976.

President George W. Bush in 2000 became the first successful major-party candidate to opt out of the program during the nominating season, thereby freeing himself of the spending limits that are linked to acceptance of the public funds.

Democrats long have been advocates for limiting campaign spending. Yet an Obama victory Tuesday, coupled with expected huge Democratic gains in the House and Senate, would give the party little incentive to reform the system, said Mr. Mann, author of the essay “Money in the 2008 Presidential Elections: A Collapse of the Campaign Finance Regime?”

“I don’t know exactly what the role of public funding might be in the future, but I don’t think anyone’s figured it out yet,” he said. “It’s not clear there is going to be any strong incentives to alter the program.”

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