Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) may take the unprecedented step of delaying formal acceptance of his nomination as the Democratic candidate for president this summer in an effort to reduce President Bush's financial advantage for the general election campaign, Kerry advisers said Friday.
Campaign officials confirmed that they are actively considering an extraordinary plan, under which Kerry would not be formally nominated at the Democratic National Convention in late July and instead would be designated as the party's nominee weeks later, around the time of the Republican convention at the end of August.
The plan, one of several ideas that campaign and party officials said are being discussed to level the financial playing field with the Republicans, is fraught with political complications -- maintaining excitement at the convention and countering Republican criticism among them -- and some legal questions. But it underscores again the extent to which fundraising and financial considerations are driving campaign strategy in this election cycle.
Aboard his campaign plane en route to a fundraiser in Connecticut on Friday evening, Kerry declined to comment. Asked whether he would accept the party's nomination in July, he replied with a grin, "I will accept the nomination."
A Federal Election Commission spokesman, Ian Stirton, would not say whether the strategy of delaying acceptance of a party nomination was acceptable under federal election law, adding that it would be "up to the commission" to decide.
The Democratic convention begins on July 26 in Boston, while the Republican convention opens Aug. 30 in New York. Under federal law, each major-party nominee will receive a check for $74.69 million from the U.S. Treasury to finance the general election campaign. Receipt of the money is triggered by formal acceptance of the nomination, and after that no money raised for the primaries can be used on behalf of each nominee's general election campaign.
Because of the timing of the two conventions, Kerry would have to start spending his $75 million at the end of July, while Bush could wait five weeks to begin spending his. Between the two conventions, Kerry would be spending public money while Bush could continue to tap the record-breaking campaign treasury he has amassed this year.
The idea of delaying the acceptance was first reported by the Associated Press on Friday afternoon and immediately confirmed by campaign officials. "It's something we're working on collectively with the party, and the party is committed to leveling the playing field and not fighting with one hand behind our backs," said Kerry's communications director, Stephanie Cutter. She added: "Nothing is final, and a lot of things are being discussed."
Republicans immediately attacked Kerry for considering the unusual idea. "Only John Kerry could be for a nominating convention but be against the nomination," said Ken Mehlman, campaign manager for Bush's reelection committee. "This is just the latest example of John Kerry's belief that the rules are for other people, not for him."
Democratic Party and Kerry campaign officials brushed aside the criticism, saying that either by formally delaying the nomination or through some other method for restructuring fundraising, they were determined to minimize what they said was a significant financial disadvantage for the fall campaign. But a party official said, "I don't think there is a consensus about how exactly this gets done."
Kerry campaign officials have been looking at various options for some time, but their strategizing became public after officials raised the idea of postponing the nomination at a meeting Thursday in Washington. Other options include raising more money than planned for the Democratic National Committee or state parties and what one campaign official called "other inventive ideas" lawyers are looking at.
Bush and Kerry opted out of the public financing system for the primaries, allowing them to raise unlimited amounts of regulated money until they accept the nominations. In part because the Kerry campaign has been unexpectedly successful in raising money since wrapping up the nomination, officials want the flexibility to keep doing so as long as possible before the Nov. 2 election.
"We are just looking at the overwhelming success he has had over the last 80 days," said campaign spokesman Michael Meehan. "Over the past 80 days, he has raised over $1 million [a day], $89 million in 80 days."
Democratic Party officials and lawyers said they see no significant legal bar to postponing the formal designation of their presidential nominee. Donald L. Fowler, former Democratic National Committee chairman, said that the national convention is the ultimate authority for party rules and that an "appropriately drawn resolution" could be approved at the July convention that sets out what constitutes formal acceptance of the nomination.
"I don't think it's a big legal thing," Fowler said. "The convention can do what it wants."
Another lawyer working with the party said, "This is a decision the party makes and it makes it pursuant to its own rules," adding that there are no other regulatory or statutory limitations.
Democratic officials said they are exploring a number of possibilities. One would be to reconvene the delegates to the convention, although trying to physically reconvene them appears unlikely. Instead, officials said, there is talk of convening through the Internet or through a conference call.
Fowler said the convention could give authority to the national committee, which could convene around Sept. 1 and designate Kerry as the nominee. In 1972, when presidential nominee George McGovern had to dump his vice presidential nominee, Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (Mo.), the DNC convened to pick R. Sargent Shriver as his replacement.
But some party leaders worried Friday that delaying the nomination would diminish the significance of the convention. Political strategists see the national conventions as one of the most important moments of the campaigns, even though they are heavily scripted. For challengers such as Kerry, they offer the first real opportunity to introduce themselves to a wide audience.
Republican sources raised two questions about the possible strategy: One is whether the Democrats would still qualify for a $15 million federal grant to defray the cost of a "nominating" convention. The other is whether the television networks would still be bound by equal-time obligations to cover the Democratic convention if the event becomes "a four-day political rally" instead of nominating a presidential candidate.
Beyond postponing the nomination, Kerry officials said Friday they were discussing unconventional approaches to their convention because of limited prime-time interest by the major broadcast networks. Asked how Kerry could deliver the traditional acceptance speech if he is not the nominee, Cutter said, "That comes down to semantics, doesn't it?"
Edsall reported from Washington.