Every four years, the federal government offers presidential candidates a deal: Limit campaign spending and Uncle Sam will cut you a check matching the first $250 of each contribution to your campaign. Yesterday, the government made good on its part of the bargain. Sort of.

The Treasury sent out $16.9 million in matching fund checks, a figure that represents just half of the $34 million authorized last month by the Federal Election Commission.

The problem is that because not enough Americans check the box on their tax returns earmarking $3 for the matching fund program, the government does not have enough money in its account to cover the whole $34 million. So the rest of the cash probably won't be delivered until April, when nomination battles on both sides promise to be all but over.

On the Republican side, both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and magazine publisher Steve Forbes have opted out of the federal system, meaning they are free to spend whatever they want (Bush from his $67 million campaign account, Forbes from his own deep pockets).

Of the candidates operating within the system, Vice President Gore received $5.5 million, while his Democratic rival, Bill Bradley, got $4.1 million.

Among Republicans, Arizona Sen. John McCain picked up $2.1 million, conservative activist Gary Bauer got $2 million and radio talk show host Alan Keyes netted $600,000. Former vice president Dan Quayle, who dropped out of the race months ago, received $1 million and Reform Party candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, once a GOP contender, picked up $1.2 million.

In the past, candidates have taken out loans against the rest of the money they expect to receive from the government, but few campaigns appeared ready to do that yesterday. Gore communications director Kathleen Begala did not rule out getting loans later in the primary season, but said that right now the Gore campaign is feeling "flush" with the fresh $5.5 million check from the government.

Sierra Club vs. Bush, Redux

The Sierra Club is going after Bush once again. The environmental group, which ran ads last month criticizing the Texas governor's record, will launch a second spot bashing Bush today on WMUR in New Hampshire.

The 30-second ad, which will run through Friday and completes a $100,000 Sierra Club ad buy against Bush, argues that Texas "leads the nation in cancer-causing and toxic chemicals released into the environment" and says Bush "has proposed weakening the Clean Air Act . . . even though Texas has over 400,000 kids with asthma--like William Tinker." The ad concludes: "Call George Bush. Tell him to clean up Texas's air and water, for our families, and William Tinker's future."

In South Carolina, McCain will begin airing a television ad today featuring Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) praising McCain's integrity. "In Vietnam, John McCain and his fellow prisoners of war showed us what honor really means," Graham says. "He's stood up for our families with a 17-year pro-life voting record, and has voted to take pornography off the Internet. John McCain will bring honor back to the Oval Office. He's the conservative who will stop Bill Clinton's betrayal of the military, and say no to the big-money special interests."