Obama skips public finance

McCain to stay in system, says rival broke his word

Election 2008

June 20, 2008|By Mike Dorning and John McCormick | Mike Dorning and John McCormick,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Get ready for the $500 million presidential campaign.

That's how much money some Democratic strategists think Barack Obama can raise for the fall election now that he has reversed field and decided to opt out of the public financing system that limits the election spending of presidential candidates.

"Raising a half billion dollars is a very realistic figure for him," said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist and senior adviser to the last two Democratic presidential candidates.

The pace of fundraising could be staggering. To make the $500 million mark in the remaining 137 days before Nov. 4, the campaign would need to raise $3.6 million a day, including Sundays, all in increments of no more than $2,300 per person, the legal limit for campaign contributions. That's more than $150,000 per hour, more than $2,500 a minute, much of it likely flowing in over the Internet through mouse clicks and credit card transactions.

In a widely expected decision, Obama announced yesterday that his presidential campaign will reject public financing, abandoning an earlier pledge to participate in the system if his Republican challenger agreed to do the same.

The about-face opened Obama to charges of hypocrisy, leveled immediately by Republican rival John McCain. Several prominent advocates of the public-finance system for presidential campaigns joined in the criticism.

While the choice risks undercutting Obama's well-cultivated public image as a champion of political reform, the enormous fundraising strength he has already demonstrated in the party primaries makes it likely that he will now be able to wage a presidential campaign on an unprecedented scale.

If Obama can continue his fundraising successes, his campaign will be able to aggressively expand the electoral battlefield onto ground previously held securely by Republicans, in states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Montana.

There will be more field offices, more supporters ringing doorbells to register voters and distribute fliers, more of the ubiquitous Obama banner ads on the Web and sustained barrages of television commercials around the country.

Hours after the decision was announced, the Obama campaign unveiled its first television commercial of the general election campaign, which it is airing broadly in 18 states, including such red states as Alaska and North Dakota.

Obama's decision to opt out of the public financing system is the first time a presidential nominee has not participated since the system was established in 1976 as a reform after the campaign finance scandals uncovered in the Watergate investigation. It sets a precedent that may further weaken the appeal of a public finance system that many political strategists consider burdensome because of the limitations it places on campaigns.

The Illinois Democrat would have received $84 million in public money for his general election effort but also would have faced strict spending limits once he is formally nominated at the party convention in late August. McCain said he will accept public funds and abide by the limit.

Visiting Columbus Junction, Iowa, McCain charged that Obama betrayed a commitment made earlier in the campaign to try to preserve the public financing system in the election.

"This election is about a lot of things, but it's also about trust. It's also about whether you can take people's word," McCain said.

Obama said in February that he would "aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election."

Limited resources often force painful choices in the final weeks of an election. Obama may now be spared such wrenching choices.

Mike Dorning and John McCormick write for the Chicago Tribune.

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