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Edwards Accepts Public Financing

In a sign of potentially serious trouble for his campaign, former Sen. John Edwards has decided to sign onto the public financing system for the presidential primaries, accepting government funds in exchange for sharp limits on his spending.

Edwards presented the decision, announced Thursday, as a challenge to his Democratic rivals to value substantive ideas over fundraising prowess. "This campaign should not be a fundraising contest," he said on CNN.

But with the end of the third quarter approaching this Sunday, the sharp reversal by Edwards suggested his candidacy is facing steep challenges in keeping apace with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, the two Democratic leaders in fundraising in the 2008 race.

By accepting public financing, Edwards will be able to receive up to $250 in matching funds for each person who donates to his campaign. In return, he will face severe limits on his spending, both during the early primaries, and if he wins those, in the months leading up to the general election.

Under the public financing system, Edwards will be allowed to spend just $817,800 in New Hampshire during the primary race. In Iowa, the limit is just under $1.5 million. In both states, even after the primaries are over, Edwards cannot exceed those limits until the Democratic convention - months after a head-to-head contest with the Republican nominee is expected to begin.

The parameters are so severe that only one other candidate - Sen. John McCain of Arizona - has discussed taking matching funds. Other campaigns have said to do so would make them non-competitive.

"The spending limits are just too low. It's fatal. It's not doable. On either side," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic consultant who supports Clinton, said when asked about McCain's financing plans last week.

Although there are ways for a candidate to skirt the state-by-state limitations of the public financing system - such as staying in hotels in neighboring states overnight or buying advertising air time in border states' media markets - it is difficult to build an election strategy on such a hopscotch board. Joe Trippi, who managed the presidential campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in 2004 and is a senior adviser to Edwards this time, conceded as much in a 2003 interview with the Washington Post.

"This campaign believes that any Democratic campaign that opted into the matching-funds system has given up on the general election," Trippi said in December of 2003. "There is absolutely no way you can sustain the hits that are going to come from now until August with a $45 million limit."

One Edwards official said on Thursday that the campaign will likely report having raised about $7 million over the last three months - significantly less than he raised in the first two quarters of the year, although the final totals will not be reported until after the deadline at midnight on Sept. 30. What was not immediately clear was the amount Edwards had already spent.

His campaign moved aggressively to cast his decision as a moral imperative. "You shouldn't be able to buy your way into the White House - you should have to earn the votes of the American people with bold vision and ideas," said Edwards' campaign manager Congressman David Bonior. "This is the most expensive presidential campaign in history, by far. And the simple fact is that the influence of money in politics - and the focus on raising money in this election - has gotten out of control. It's time to get back to focusing on the issues that matter to the American people. That's why John Edwards has decided to play by the rules that were designed to ensure fairness in the election process by capping his campaign spending and seeking public financing."

--Anne E. Kornblut and Matthew Mosk

By Washington Post editors  |  September 27, 2007; 5:47 PM ET
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