Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The chairman of the Federal Election Commission yesterday predicted that 2008 will produce the first $1 billion presidential race and that the $500 million that each party’s candidate will need to compete will severely limit the field of contenders.

“The 2008 presidential election will be the longest and most expensive in United States history,” FEC Chairman Michael E. Toner told The Washington Times.

“The nominee of each major party is likely to opt out of the public-financing system for the first time ever for the general election,” Mr. Toner said.

Officials told The Times that in 2004, both Sen. John Kerry and President Bush considered not accepting public financing for the general election. But they decided to accept the $75 million and the consequent spending cap out of fear of an out-of-control, money-raising race with an uncertain outcome. Both men eschewed federal matching funds for their primary contests.

Mr. Toner said that nominees will seek to raise up to $500 million for their campaigns and that the “entry level” for getting into the presidential nomination campaign as a serious contender will be $100 million by the end of 2007. A candidate who hasn’t raised that much by then will not be taken seriously by potential major donors or by the press, he said.

Among the handful of “first-tier” potential nomination candidates in both parties, two are considered safe bets to eschew public financing for both the primaries and general elections.

On the Republican side, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who strategists in both parties consider the best-organized candidate in his party, has the credentials and proven money-raising ability to forgo public money. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the best-organized Democrat, is the best bet for non-public financing in her party, strategists say.

“Hillary can raise $350 [million] for the primary and another $250 [million] for the general,” one official said privately.

Mrs. Clinton leads and Mr. McCain runs second behind former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in presidential preference polls of primary voters in their respective parties.

Mr. Giuliani also is expected to have no trouble raising money from a variety of major donors both in the Republican Party — where economic and national-defense conservatives outnumber rich religious conservatives — and even among Jewish Democrats who admire his stand on Israel.

Last night in New York, the former mayor and federal prosecutor held his first major fundraiser since he formed a presidential exploratory committee last month. Mr. Giuliani was expected to raise $500,000 from that one “preliminary” event, attended mainly by family and friends at the Times Square Marriott hotel.

Mr. Toner said that realistically, the huge amounts of money required for the 2008 campaign would winnow out, earlier than usual, many potential candidates in what was expected to be a very large field in both parties.

The per-person donation limit at the Giuliani fundraiser last night was $2,100 — the maximum per-person donation allowed for a primary campaign for the 2008 election cycle — although Mr. Giuliani has not formally declared his candidacy.

Election officials say the reason that candidates will likely eschew public financing of the general election this time is the larger “hard money” legal per-person contribution — $4,200 for primary and general elections combined — and the longer election cycle which, with neither an incumbent president nor vice president on the ballot, will be the most wide-open White House contest since 1952.

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