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A Candidacy In 2000, by The Numbers

By Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 1997; Page A12

Stan Huckaby says he knows what it will take to be president. The answer: just shy of \$22 million, by Dec. 31, 1999.

Huckaby is an accountant who has virtually cornered the market on doing Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports for GOP presidential candidates. He's also the man who devised the figure – widely accepted by those who wanted the job in 1996 – that they would have needed to raise almost \$20 million by the start of that election year.

Now, Huckaby has crunched the numbers again and come up with what promises to be the marker for the 2000 race.

Here's how he figures it. Federal election law sets spending ceilings for presidential candidates in the primary season, adjusted for inflation. Assuming a 2 percent annual cost-of-living adjustment, Huckaby calculates that the basic limit for 2000 will be \$33.5 million – and that the successful nominee of each party will spend the maximum allowed.

Add to that the 20 percent allotment, roughly \$6.7 million, that the FEC lets candidates spend on fund-raising and the \$5.5 million or so that candidates will be able to raise for their legal and accounting costs.

That means the total that can be legally raised by candidates during the primary season is \$45.7 million, a number that includes the federal matching funds that candidates get for donations up to \$250.

Of that \$45.7 million, Huckaby estimates, candidates can get about \$13.6 million in matching funds. That leaves about \$32 million to be raised by candidates. Looking at the primary calendar, Huckaby calculates that most of that fund-raising needs to be done by the start of the election year. To be precise: \$21,539,322 of it.

However, there's yet another wrinkle. While Huckaby's calculations – and indeed, the whole presidential primary system – are premised on federal matching funds, the FEC is warning that the money is not going to be in the till in time to pay the candidates this time around.

"The cash flow shortfall may be so severe that participating candidates might not be made whole until after the conventions," FEC staff director John Surina warned commissioners in an Oct. 31 memo.

Indeed, he said, facing a lengthy period without matching funds might encourage some primary candidates to opt out of the federal financing system. That would leave them free to spend whatever amount they wish during the primary campaign, as Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes did in 1996.

The FEC faced a shortfall in the matching fund account during the last campaign as well, providing pro-rated payments to candidates for the first three months of 1996 and forcing some campaigns to take out short-term loans. In the end, 11 primary candidates received \$58.5 million in matching funds, and the Treasury Department shelled out \$236 million overall to fund the conventions and general election campaigns.

That money comes from the \$3 that taxpayers can decide to contribute to the matching fund by checking off the appropriate box on their tax returns. The difficulty is that in 1996, 12 percent of taxpayers chose to participate, and that rate isn't likely to grow any time soon. With that level of participation, Surina estimates the fund will have about \$174.5 million on Dec. 31, 1999.

But federal regulations require that before paying matching funds to primary candidates, the Treasury has to set aside money for the general election campaign and the conventions – leaving just \$25.5 million available for matching fund payments as of Jan. 1, 2000, when the payments would begin.

At the same time, with no incumbent president or clear front-runner to forestall contested primaries in either party, Surina presumes, the 2000 race will include more than the 11 candidates who got matching funds in 1996.

"In addition to anticipating a good many primary candidates, it probably is safe to assume that we will again witness feverish fund-raising for matching contributions during 1999, maximizing the entitlement due on January 1, 2000," he wrote.

With the prospect of a year-long shortfall, Surina said, candidates might find it harder to get loans than last time around or decide they don't want to shoulder the debt burden. Candidates "who believe they have private fund-raising appeal or personal wealth might decide to go it alone," he said.