In a message posted on his campaign Web site Wednesday, Dean tells supporters he is placing "the most important decision of this campaign in your hands. We need to choose whether we will decline federal matching funds or accept them."
The former Vermont governor is casting his potential abandonment of the system as a way to empower his supporters, many of whom are new to the political system, and legitimize his promise to fight Washington special interests on behalf of ordinary Americans.
"This decision is no longer mine to make," Dean said on his Web site. "This is a campaign of the people, by the people and for the people. Your successful effort of raising a historic amount of money through small contributions has made this choice possible. This is why I am putting this decision in your hands."
Even as he prepared to reject a system forged amid Watergate-era reforms, Dean said "true political reform" is giving Americans control of their government.
"The Bush campaign is selling our democracy so they can crush their political opponents," he said. "We cannot let this happen."
His critics were poised to call Dean a hypocrite. He told the Associated Press in March that his support of public financing was not based on any political considerations, such as the size of the field or how much money he can raise. He even vowed to criticize any Democrat who opted out of the system.
"I know Howard has said in the past that he supports campaign finance reform, so if he opts out of the system, it's inconsistent," one of his rivals, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, said Wednesday. "But, hey, that's a decision he has to make."
Said contender Dick Gephardt: "In order to truly level the playing field, every single presidential candidate should pledge to stay within the public financing system."
Two other foes, John Kerry and Wesley Clark, will be forced to consider opting out of the system to remain competitive with the front-runner. Sen. John Edwards will remain within the system, advisers say.
Dean is asking his backers to vote Thursday and Friday by e-mail, Internet, telephone or U.S. mail on whether he should remain in the system. Results were to be announced on Saturday. Dean would be the first candidate in Democratic Party history to reject federal campaign money.
Candidates who take the matching funds can get up to $18.7 million — money Dean would be turning away if he rejects the system — and are limited to about $45 million in spending through the primary season.
Dean reported raising $25 million as of Sept. 30 and, campaign officials say, has raised about $5 million since then.
That means he's already bumping up against the $45 million cap, when matching money is factored in. By opting out of the system, Dean would be taking a calculated risk that he can raise much more than $45 million on his own.
"Declining federal funds means turning down almost $19 million that the federal government would give to this campaign," he wrote. "That means we will have to raise that money ourselves if we are to win the primary, beat George Bush, and take our country back."
Putting such a critical choice in the hands of his supporters is another first for Dean, who has already revolutionized the way campaigns use the Internet to raise money and build grass-roots operations. Evoking the nation's Founding Fathers, he said, "It is for the people to change the system for themselves."
Some Dean advisers predicted that supporters would vote to opt out of the system. Others reacted with surprise and alarm at the risk Dean was taking. Advisers in rival campaigns privately accused Dean of staging the tally to give him political cover for a decision he's already made, a charge denied by the Dean camp.
President Bush is expected to accept public financing for the general election, which begins after the GOP convention ends in September 2004. But the president, who is unopposed for the GOP nomination, plans to use his enormous primary campaign war chest to air political ads and develop a get-out-the-vote operation during spring 2004 — in hopes that the Democratic nominee, limited by caps, cannot respond.
"This is the one Democratic campaign which has the opportunity to fight back against the onslaught of the Bush attacks," Dean said.