After detailed exploration of opting out of the public financing system, key strategists in the presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) are planning to accept $75 million in federal money for the general election.
"We are taking the federal money," Kerry finance chair Louis Susman said yesterday. Kerry campaign spokesman Michael Meehan was more adamant: "We are not opting out. We are taking public funds. No, N-O, no, we are not opting out."
Kerry officials voiced one caveat: They would reopen the debate over rejecting federal money if they learned that President Bush planned to use privately raised money to finance his general election campaign.
Steve Schmidt, a Bush campaign spokesman, said the president "has no plans" to opt out. But Schmidt refused to pledge Bush would stay inside the system for the final eight weeks of the campaign.
Some of Kerry's fundraisers and campaign operatives have argued that the prospective Democratic nominee should reject the $75 million federal grant in order to be free to spend unlimited amounts of privately raised cash. Under federal rules, candidates who accept public funding for the general election campaign this fall are prohibited from raising additional private funds.
Two senior Kerry advisers said the option has not been ruled out, though both said it is highly unlikely. Kerry left the door open to opting out during an interview with the Boston Globe on Sunday, and several top advisers remain enamored of the possibility of doubling the $75 million public allotment by tapping into the highly energized liberal base.
Other Kerry campaign sources said, however, that the pros and cons of opting out of the public financing system have been debated exhaustively in recent months, and a consensus has been reached to accept public money.
Both Kerry and Bush rejected public subsidies during the primaries so they could spend more than the $45 million cap that goes with accepting the federal money. Each raised record-breaking amounts, $214.8 million for Bush through the end of May and $148.5 million for Kerry.
On the day they accept their respective party nominations -- July 29 for Kerry and Sept. 2 for Bush -- each candidate will have to declare whether he will take the $75 million and limit spending to that amount, or reject it.
"Basically, the Bush guys have us in a squeeze," one of Kerry's top strategists said. "They don't have to tell us anything until after we have to commit, and there is no way they are going to do us any favors."
Two top Kerry aides said the campaign is confident it could raise $140 million or more after the convention, but some are concerned that a drop in the polls, a terrorist attack or other unforeseen development could leave Kerry out on a limb.
"Do we have to keep the door open? Yes," said a senior Kerry adviser, who requested anonymity to discuss the campaign's thinking. "You always have to concede the possibility."
A top adviser said 25,000 people have given the maximum $2,000 to Kerry, and an additional 20,000 or so contributed between $1,000 and $2,000. Through May, the Kerry campaign received $69.4 million in contributions of $1,000 or more, according to the Campaign Finance Institute.
These contributors alone would be expected to double their bets and kick in about half of the $140 million. The remainder would come from small direct-mail and Internet donors, a low-cost and highly effective fundraising tool for the Kerry campaign.
The Bush campaign has raised far more in contributions of $1,000 or more, $137.4 million.
In what has become a high-stakes game of political poker, each side is waiting for the other to blink. A senior adviser said Kerry would sign a pledge to stay within the system if Bush did. Kerry's disadvantage in this test of wills is that he must decide first.
Rejecting the guaranteed $75 million in federal money poses a series of costs and possible dangers, according to key Kerry fundraisers.
One of the most daunting costs would be that a candidate would have to invest more time and effort in collecting additional money from committed supporters instead of campaigning for undecided votes in battleground states.
For Kerry, the most important states in which to raise money would be New York and California, both viewed as reliably in the Democratic column with little political advantage flowing from campaign appearances in them.