McCain Returns Donor Cash
By Matthew Mosk
Sen. John McCain's campaign returned $3 million to donors this week, a campaign spokesman said, but not because he didn't want their money.
The accounting move was aimed at preserving his ability to accept public financing for the general election.
Candidates are allowed to accept $2,300 for their primary bid and a second $2,300 for the general election. If they choose to accept government support (to the tune of $80 million) for the general election, they have to send those second checks back.
But like many plans conceived by Congress, this one has a loophole. Certain activities can be financed by donors, even if the candidate accepts the public money. So along with the returned checks, McCain has sent his donors a letter asking them to send the money back his way, but redirected towards his campaign's special compliance fund.
All this activity offers the surest signal that McCain is planning to accept public funds for the general election. He would be eligible to receive the money after accepting his party's nomination at the national convention in September. McCain advisers said the move was "consistent with setting up the infrastructure so if we do take public financing we'll be ready for it."
That strategic decision could become one of the most significant storylines of the general election campaign -- that the eventual Democratic candidate could wind up being free to raise unlimited amounts while McCain would be hamstrung by the limits of the public financing system. Sen. Hillary Clinton long ago ruled out the idea of taking public funds if she is the nominee. Sen. Barack Obama had pledged to enter the public system if the Republican nominee did the same. But more recently, Obama has been less clear on his intentions.
The reason is clear enough. Democrats in the presidential field have for more than a year been out-raising GOP contenders. Obama and Clinton combined in March to raise more than $60 million -- more money in one month than McCain had raised over the past year. (McCain has not said how much he raised in March, but aides said it would not come close to Obama's $40 million haul).
The McCain campaign still appears intent on persuading Obama back into the public system, if he is the nominee. Spokesman Brian Rogers said: "If he steps away from this pledge, it leaves open the question whether he will backtrack on other pledges he makes to the American people."
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