WASHINGTON -- In a development that could directly affect whether some Republican presidential candidates make it through the crucial first stage of the primary season, the Federal Election Commission is expecting a shortfall of as much of $15 million in the matching funds that candidates are expecting to receive early next year.
While the amount of the deficit depends on how much the campaigns request by the end of this year, commission officials say the Treasury Department will have only $22.5 million to dispense in January. Requests are expected to reach $30 million and could be more than $40 million.
There has never been a shortfall in the public campaign fund, which was instituted as a post-Watergate reform. And this first one could cause unexpected trouble because the candidates have been counting on having plenty of cash up front to endure a compressed schedule of unusually early primaries.
The problem has arisen because of regulations imposed under the Bush administration. In 1991, at its request, the Treasury Department imposed regulations that require the department to set aside most existing matching funds for use in the general election and for party conventions rather than in the primaries. If it were not for that change, there would be enough money in January for all the campaigns.
GOP presidential hopefuls are also having trouble raising money from private donors because of the long shadow being cast by retired Gen. Colin L. Powell.
When the rules on federal matching money were changed, Democrats, as well as the Federal Election Commission itself, challenged the revisions, fearing a shortfall that would hurt Democratic primary candidates in 1992. That shortfall never materialized.
But now, with a Democratic president facing no primary challenge and a full roster of Republican candidates, the tables are turned.
The campaigns would eventually get all their money, but probably not until at least March or possibly not until after April 15, when the federal treasury will be replenished.
But that does not do much good for the GOP candidates because voting begins with the Iowa caucuses Feb. 12. By the California primary at the end of March, the bulk of the delegates will have been selected in a concentrated series of primaries.
Because of the shortfall, commission officials said that all the campaigns that submit requests for matching funds will receive only a proportion of the full subsidy based on a uniform formula.
That would leave the campaigns little alternative but to seek loans -- or not spend as much money as they had budgeted for television commercials and other costs during the primaries.
Stan Huckaby, who was treasurer of George Bush's presidential campaigns in 1988 and 1992, said that if campaigns intend to take out loans to make up for the missing matching funds, they would have to pledge the promised matching funds as collateral.
But he said that banks have become increasingly reluctant to loan to campaigns, which are not particularly secure enterprises.
"This puts the candidates at the mercy of the business decisions of bankers," said Trevor Potter, a Republican member of the election commission. "If a campaign can find a friendly banker, they'll have a leg up."