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McCain Qualifies
For Public Funds

Though campaign finance experts say it would create huge obstacles for him, Republican White House hopeful John McCain has charged ahead with his application for public financing.

The FEC announced today that McCain has become the first presidential candidate to be declared eligible to receive federal matching funds, which could amount to up to $21 million for use between January 2008 and the end-of-summer conventions. McCain aides have said they put in their application to keep open the option of taking public funds, but have not committed to doing so. The have estimated this approach could yield them about $6 million in advance of the first primaries, certainly enough to get ads up on television.

The public financing system, created in the aftermath of the Watergate scandals, has been increasingly seen as obsolete in modern campaigns. It requires candidates to submit to strict state-by-state limits on how much they can spend until the day their party's national convention selects a nominee. In exchange, they are granted matching funds from the U.S. Treasury. Given the level of spending already present in the 2008 campaigns, those limits seem quaint, according to some experts.

In recent elections, major party candidates have decided to forgo the public funds, figuring they could raise more on their own. McCain began discussing the opition in July, after it had become clear that his campaign had spent at a pace it could not maintain.

Drawing from the nation's public finance system would present McCain with "an extraordinarily steep mountain to climb," Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute told the Post in July.

For one thing, it has the potential to put McCain at a steep disadvantage against almost all of the other major candidates, who will be free to raise and spend as much as they can in the early primary states.
In New Hampshire, for instance, McCain would be permitted to spend no more than $817,800 during the primaries. He spent $137,652 there in the first three months of the year, without running a single television ad.

His challenge may be greatest in Iowa, where he would be limited to spending $1.5 million. Evan Tracey, a campaign media analyst for TNS Media Intelligence, said other GOP front-runners will probably spend between $7 million and $15 million each in Iowa on television ads alone. "In that situation, you really are taking a knife to a gunfight in terms of advertising," Tracey said.

Perhaps a bigger obstacle, Malbin said, is that there is an overall national limit on primary spending that in 2004 was about $41 million, and McCain has already spent about $23 million.

"I'd like to know, how would he go between now and the nomination on a total of $18 million?" Malbin asked.

--Matthew Mosk

By Post Editor  |  August 28, 2007; 4:32 PM ET
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