Dean rejects public funds for primaries

First Democrat to do so

others might follow

November 09, 2003|By Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Breaking with a nearly 30-year tradition, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean announced yesterday that he would become the first Democratic presidential candidate ever to opt out of the system for publicly financing elections.

Speaking to supporters in Vermont, Dean said that only by rejecting public financing - and the spending limits it imposes - could he compete financially with President Bush if he wins the Democratic nomination. Bush has rejected public financing and is aiming to raise at least $175 million by the Republican National Convention in September.

"We have supported public financing, but the unabashed actions of this president to undercut our democratic process with floods of special interest money have forced us to abandon a broken system," Dean said.

Some of the other contenders for the Democratic nomination charged that Dean's move was aimed more at burying them under a flood of his own money during the primaries.

"It's a shame that Howard Dean has broken his word and abandoned his earlier pledge never to bypass the public financing system," Craig Smith, the campaign director for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, said in a statement.

Aides to Sen. John Kerry have said Dean's move could lead the Massachusetts Democrat to opt out of the system as well. But Kerry, whose fund raising has slowed in recent months, would likely have great difficulty making up for the public financing he would lose if he opts out.

The public financing system, set up after the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, offers matching funds to candidates who agree to spending limits and is paid for by a $3 checkoff on federal income tax returns.

Dean can now raise an unlimited amount of money - though individual donors are still subject to the federal limit of $2,000 a contribution.

In return for public matching funds, candidates who participate in the public system are required to limit their spending untill party conventions are over.

Dean's camp said the choice was forced on them by Bush's decision to opt out of the system. Because Bush is not accepting public financing, he can spend unlimited sums until the Republican convention is over.

But any Democrat who remains in the system will likely spend nearly all of the allotted $49 million by the time the nominee is chosen, probably in March. That could leave the party's nominee legally prohibited from raising or spending almost any money in the months leading up to the Democratic National Convention in July.

"This is about being toe-to-toe with the campaign that has done the most to abuse the system," said Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi.

But Dean's rivals for the Democratic nomination said the decision was also intended to benefit him against them in the fight for the nomination.

Most of Dean's rivals have urged him to voluntarily abide by the spending limits for the primaries. Under such a compromise, they say, Dean could continue raising money to compete with Bush through spring and summer if he is nominated.

Dean's camp said yesterday that it would attempt to honor those spending limits, but pointedly refused to guarantee it. Trippi said the campaign could not rule out exceeding the limits in individual states to offset activities by Bush's campaign, even before the Democratic nomination is settled.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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