By Anne E. Kornblut and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 28, 2007
Former senator John Edwards said yesterday that he will accept public financing in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, a move that will provide a short-term infusion of cash for his campaign but severely limit his ability to spend in crucial early primary contests.
He is the second candidate to express interest in accepting public financing during the primaries. The decision could result in a windfall of as much as $10 million for his candidacy in January, Edwards aides said.
The North Carolina Democrat raised about $23 million during the first six months of the year, a figure that would have been impressive in any past campaign but paled compared with the record-setting amounts raked in by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who have each easily topped the $50 million mark.
By opting into the public financing system, Edwards will be eligible to receive matching funds of as much as $250 for each contribution an individual makes to his campaign. In return, he will face strict limits on his spending that could put him at a 10 to 1 spending disadvantage in primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire. He will also be forbidden from contributing his own money to his bid.
While rival campaigns painted the decision as a clear signal that the 2004 vice presidential nominee was struggling to bring in money, Edwards presented the move as a challenge to his Democratic rivals to value ideas over fundraising prowess. "This campaign should not be a fundraising contest," he said on CNN. Under the matching system, Edwards will be allowed to spend $817,800 in New Hampshire in the run-up to the primary contest there. In Iowa, the limit is just under $1.5 million. In both states, even after the primaries are over, Edwards cannot exceed those limits until the Democratic National Convention -- months after a head-to-head contest with the Republican nominee is expected to begin.
By the time June ended, Edwards had already spent $258,968 in New Hampshire and $535,169 in Iowa -- in both instances, about a third of the total allowed. The bulk of a candidate's spending typically comes in the weeks leading up to Election Day, when he or she faces the highest field and advertising expenses. By some estimates, Clinton and Obama may each spend more than $10 million in Iowa alone.
Edwards and his top advisers said they examined at length at the question of how public financing would affect their chances in the primaries. Senior adviser Joe Trippi said yesterday that they concluded they could be in a stronger position with the public money providing a potential infusion of more than $10 million in January that "nobody expected we would have."
Trippi, who said the campaign would report raising about $7 million in the third quarter and having between $8 million and $9 million in cash, discounted concerns about the spending limits. He said there were so many exemptions to the restrictions that the limits were not a serious concern. He also argued that the campaign would be able to get by with fewer television advertisements than their rivals because the campaign would be relying more heavily on its field operations.
Trippi also disputed that his approach to this campaign contradicts his statements about public money.
While leading Howard Dean's campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2003, Trippi told The Washington Post that this "campaign believes that any Democratic campaign that opted into the matching-funds system has given up on the general election," Trippi said. "There is absolutely no way you can sustain the hits that are going to come from now until August with a $45 million limit."
"I know my quotes are out there," he said yesterday. "It's a different time. A different year."
Trippi leveled a blast at Clinton, who has repeatedly told the voters that the only way to eliminate the influence of money in Washington is through public financing but who has declined to participate in the system.
"When is she going to commit to the public financing that she's been talking about?" Trippi asked. "I mean, was that just happy talk on the Sunday shows?"
The spending limitations are so severe that only one other candidate -- Sen. John McCain of Arizona -- has even discussed taking matching funds. McCain announced that he would strongly consider accepting public financing after a second-quarter fundraising letdown.
"The spending limits are just too low. It's fatal. It's not doable. On either side," said Steve Elmendorf, a veteran Democratic consultant who supports Clinton, earlier this year in reference to McCain's decision to consider taking public money.
Even if Edwards were able to win the early primary states to become the presumptive Democratic nominee, he would suffer repercussions later from taking matching funds. The matching system would prohibit him from raising and spending money for the general election until the Democratic convention actually takes place; the Democratic Party would be able to raise and spend money but could not coordinate its efforts with the nominee.
That scenario played out in 1996, when Republican Robert J. Dole emerged from the early primaries depleted on funds and faced a well-financed incumbent in Bill Clinton.
"It's not hard to have the party support your national campaign," said one Republican strategist who worked on the Dole campaign. "But the perception is that you are weak, don't have the resources to compete and look like a loser. And that perceptions follows your campaign around like a big, dark cloud."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.