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Obama Poised To Turn Down Public Financing

This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.

Eighty-four million dollars sounds like a lot of money to spend in just over two months. But for Democratic frontrunner Barack Obama, it may not be enough.

Obama, like presumptive GOP nominee John McCain, is eligible for public financing should he be named his party's nominee. But if he takes the money, which would be allocated after the Democratic National Convention in late August, Obama would have to agree not to raise or spend money on top of what the government has provided. And Tuesday night, the Illinois senator indicated that's a deal he may well turn down.

"We have created a parallel public financing system where the American people decide if they want to support a campaign they can get on the Internet and finance it," Obama said at $2,300-per-person fundraiser in Washington D.C., "and they will have as much access and influence over the course and direction of our campaign that has traditionally been reserved for the wealthy and the powerful."

Obama's "parallel public financing system," of course, is his robust fundraising apparatus. The Illinois senator raised an $40 million in March, bringing his total to more than $230 million; McCain, by contrast, took in about $15 million last month and has only taken in about $75 million overall. Hillary Clinton has also raised large sums - more than $175 million so far - and has said she would opt out of public financing.

The Money Race
Check out February tallies for Clinton, Obama and McCain, including how much they've raised and spent since the campaign began.
Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that while Obama appears to be shying away from public financing, McCain's advisors tell CBS News the Arizona senator is likely to embrace it - something every major party candidate has done in the general election since the system was created in 1974.

Obama didn't always feel this way. Last March, Obama spokesman Bill Burton said the candidate would "aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election." Obama also told the Midwest Democracy Network, in a questionnaire, that he would participate in the system, writing that he had proposed a system in which "both major party candidates...agree on a fundraising truce, return excess money from donors, and stay within the public financing system for the general election."

The Obama campaign has since suggested that Obama never vowed to take public financing, with Burton stating on Feb. 17 of this year that "there is no pledge." But McCain has hammered Obama for what he says is a clear case of the senator potentially breaking his promise.

"We both made a commitment to take public financing. There's nothing to talk about. We either keep our word or we don't keep our word," McCain said in New York Wednesday.

"Obama is trying to claim the moral equivalency ground by saying his broad base of individual small dollar donors is roughly the same thing as public financing," said Rogan Kersh, associate dean of New York University's Wagner School of Public Service. "McCain is trying to say he promised to do one thing and now he's doing another. Obama is really hoping that he can make the moral assertion as opposed to being seen as a hypocrite or a flip-flopper."

While McCain would technically be limited to the $84 million should he accept public financing - and that works out to more than $1 million per day between the convention and the general election - that won't be the only money used in service of his campaign. The Republican National Committee, which is looking to raise $150 million for this election cycle, will also work on McCain's behalf. And even if he takes public financing, McCain can help the party raise money. In 2004, for example, John Kerry's Web site featured a button taking supporters to the Democratic National Committee's site, where they could give to the party for its effort to get Kerry elected.

But Kerry generated nowhere near the grassroots support that Obama has. Democratic strategist and CBS political analyst Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean's largely Internet fundraising-driven campaign in 2004, suggested that the Illinois senator's fundraising prowess will simply overwhelm the efforts of McCain, the RNC, and whatever outside groups work on the Republican nominee's behalf.

"Obama will be able, in the first few weeks after he gets the nomination, to raise whatever McCain and the RNC will have for the entire campaign," Trippi said, suggesting that Obama could raise $100 million in the week of the convention alone.

Still, why wouldn't Obama simply take public financing and steer donors to his party? Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, suggested that one reason is that "many of the donors to his campaign are new to the system and may not be willing to give to the party."

Malbin also said that because of the long primary fight between Obama and Clinton, the nominee will have relatively little time to gain functional control of the DNC, the group that will decide how money given to the party is spent. If Obama's campaign steers money to the DNC and the DNC spends it in ways that the campaign feels are unwise - say, in service of chairman Howard Dean's 50 state strategy - there is nothing the Obama team could do about it. (Also worth considering: The DNC presently has far less money in the bank at the moment than the RNC.)

By not taking public financing, Obama would leave himself open to McCain's charge that he broke his promise, one the presumptive GOP nominee is likely to hammer home until November. But McCain could suffer blowback on that front because of his decision in the primary to abandon public financing without the approval of the Federal Election Commission, a move critics have suggested was a violation of campaign finance laws.

Trippi suggested that Obama could counter McCain's criticism by setting a cap on contributions to his campaign - say, $250 - and suggesting that his presidential effort, in which he isn't taking money from Washington lobbyists or Political Action Committees, represents the truest form of public financing America has seen.

"He can say, 'OK Mr. Straight Talk,' if you want to change the system, we can do it together right now. join me in this,'" Trippi said. "When McCain refuses, Obama can say, 'the real reason you're staying in the system is you can't raise the money, because you have no grassroots support among the American people.'"
By Brian Montopoli

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