Dean still struggles with public financing dilemma

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(Host) Howard Dean’s fundraising success presents a tough dilemma for the Democratic presidential candidate. Dean must decide whether his campaign will accept federal matching funds to continue the race next year. If he takes the money, he’ll have to sharply limit spending though next year’s Democratic convention. Dean says he hasn’t yet decided what to do.

VPR’s John Dillon has more.

(Dillon) The good news for Howard Dean is that his campaign will probably qualify for at least $14 million in federal matching funds. If he accepts it, the public money would roll in after January, just as the primary campaign enters its intense final months.

The bad news is that the federal money comes with a price. If he takes the federal match, Dean also has to abide by campaign spending limits – about $49 million. That would restrict his ability to compete later on. Dean is acutely aware of the public financing dilemma.

(Dean) “It’s problematic no matter what we do. Because the way it works, if we accept the matching funds we’ll have an enormous amount of money early and we’ll run out of money when it comes time to try to take on the president – because he’ll have $200 million in funds that have been raised outside the match. If we don’t accept the match, we won’t have as much money as we’d like to in Iowa and New Hampshire, but we’ll be able to take on the president later on, because we’re able to raise money from a large number of people who don’t have much but are willing to make small donations.”

(Dillon) Earlier this year, Dean pledged to adhere to the spending limits and accept public financing. His Democratic rivals would no doubt criticize him if he reneges on that promise. But if he is forced to follow the spending limits, he could be at a severe disadvantage as the primaries wind down.

Tony Corrado, a Colby College professor of government and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, has written extensively about campaign financing. Corrado says the spending limit is a real problem for campaigns with hard-fought primaries.

Corrado says the money the candidate has already spent counts against the spending limit. Dean has spent about $12 million so far. According to Corrado, if Dean decides to comply with the limits, he could be forbidden from spending any money from March until right after the July Democratic convention, when new federal funds kick in.

(Corrado) “So just as the candidate is starting to capture the public’s imagination, it’s often the case that the candidate runs up against the spending limit and has to cut back on all their campaigning. That was a problem that Dole had in ’96 when he essentially had a very competitive race, but in April was already bumping up against the amount of money he could spend. Similarly, John McCain in 2000, just as the public was getting to know him, and really getting interested in his candidacy, he essentially had already spent the maximum amount allowed. So it’s become a real problem that has to be addressed.”

(Dillon) President Bush has promised to raise $200 million for his re-election effort. He plans to have $100 million available next March. Bush will outspend any of his Democratic rivals. But Corrado says Dean is in a unique position to compete if he decides to reject the federal match.

He says most of the people who have donated to Dean have contributed far less than the $2,000 maximum. That means the candidate can go back to them again and again.

(Corrado) “He has an extraordinary base of support. No other presidential candidate since these laws were passed after Watergate has the broad base of support amongst small donors. So he of all the Democrats has the best potential to raise additional money, should he become the nominee.”

(Dillon) According to Corrado, the federal spending limit is out of whack. He says the limit doesn’t match today’s reality of front-loaded primary campaigns.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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