The money primary

April 09, 2007

Nine months before the first votes are cast and at a time when almost no one outside the political industry is paying attention, a crowded field of presidential contenders is being thinned on the basis of the candidates' ability to raise money.

In theory, that's a fair test of an appealing campaign message - and the good news for democracy is that the presumed front-runners in both parties no longer look like prohibitive favorites so far in advance of Election Day.

But the extraordinary dollar chase has so dominated the campaigns so far that candidates have little time for anything else. And those lacking broad name recognition - or at least support from a deep-pocketed special interest group - can't hope to compete.

This spectacle, which has almost nothing to do with producing the best possible president, makes a powerful case for updating the public campaign financing law for presidential elections. The matching money program worked well for a quarter-century until its spending limits and starting dates became hopelessly outmoded.

Updates couldn't apply until the 2012 contest. But 2008 candidates should all agree to limit themselves to the $85 million in public money available to each nominee in next year's general election campaign.

The furious pace of fundraising this cycle is driven in part by the accelerated schedule for state primaries - with more than a dozen set for Feb. 5, including vote-rich California, Texas and New York. Campaigning in such places is expensive, but votes that day could well decide both party nominations.

It's no wonder federal matching money for the 2008 primaries was rejected by the candidates, who would have had to abide by spending limits of $50 million each. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee, spent $225 million during his primary season. President Bush topped him at $275 million.

But the no-holds-barred competition now under way appears to have effectively narrowed the race to the three best-known candidates in each party, and threatens to drive others out before most voters tune in.

Worse, it's very hard to raise enormous sums of money in $2,300 maximum contributions without depending on middleman bundlers, likely to expect some influence on the new administration in return.

The overall cost of the presidential contest would not be too high if Americans could be sure it was helping them make the best choices. A better way to achieve that would be to free candidates from this obsessive campaign for cash so they have more time to spend with voters discussing the issues.

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