Before Running, Candidates Must Explore

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) tentatively joined the presidential race Tuesday when he formed an exploratory committee. When he announces Feb. 10, the entity will become his campaign committee.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) tentatively joined the presidential race Tuesday when he formed an exploratory committee. When he announces Feb. 10, the entity will become his campaign committee. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Bloomberg News)
By Shailagh Murray and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 18, 2007

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has one, as do several Republicans: Sens. Sam Brownback (Kan.) and John McCain (Ariz.), former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. And any day now, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) may be compelled to form her own.

It's this season's must-have political entity: the presidential exploratory committee. The legal equivalent of sticking one toe in the campaign waters, an exploratory committee allows prospective candidates to begin raising money for a campaign while they are still deciding whether to take the plunge.

Obama hand-delivered his committee paperwork to the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday morning, explaining that he would announce a formal decision Feb. 10. The five-page file reveals little beyond who's keeping the books and which bank the campaign is using (Citibank). But it puts his campaign on firm legal ground. Most candidates would prefer not to announce a candidacy this early, but given the massive sums they must raise to compete these days, they need all the time they can get.

The straggler is Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, who has been mum on her plans. An aide said yesterday evening that the senator "would likely be making her intentions clear in a matter of weeks, not months."

But at some point soon, whatever political advantage Clinton may gain by waiting could collide with the firm legal requirements that accompany a candidacy, even one in the exploratory phase.

The most significant of those, said FEC commissioner Michael E. Toner, is that she cannot legally raise money for a presidential bid without first forming an exploratory committee. Obama's filing "ups the ante," Toner said, "in that he has tremendous potential to raise money."

She may also find it increasingly difficult to sidestep the array of legal triggers that, if tripped, would require her to form a committee, said Scott Thomas, a former FEC chairman. Those include raising or spending more than $5,000 toward a presidential bid from her leadership political action committee, HillPAC, a separate account used to support candidates and party committees.

"If her leadership PAC is paying for her to fly around and speak in public settings, and it looks like that activity is toward a campaign effort, that would trigger a requirement that she file," Thomas said.

The word "exploratory" is not in any FEC regulations. Instead, the phase is referred to as "testing the waters," and an exploratory committee is legally just a campaign committee with "exploratory" in its name. When a formal campaign is announced, the candidate usually changes the name of the committee -- for instance, from "Obama Exploratory Committee," as the senator named his new entity, to something like "Obama for President."

"If you want to just test the waters, assess your viability, you don't necessarily have to register a committee with us," said FEC spokesman Robert W. Biersack. "But in exchange, you cannot do certain things: create a war chest, actively campaign, generate material that says 'Vote for me.' "

Some campaign-finance experts complain that the current law gives prospective candidates too much wiggle room. For instance, Clinton and Obama have been lining up staffs for weeks, if not months, including fundraisers, policy experts and field organizers, on a far bigger scale than even a Senate leadership operation would warrant.

Several presidential campaign insiders, speaking on background, said their lawyers have cautioned against heavy hiring as well as excessive fundraising. "We ought to have a much cleaner system here for presidential candidates raising and spending money," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a government-ethics watchdog group. "These are very murky waters."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company