Howard Dean to Reject Public Financing
BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) _ Front-runner Howard Dean became on Saturday the first Democratic presidential candidate ever to reject taxpayer money and avoid the accompanying spending limits, saying he had to act to compete against President Bush’s cash-rich campaign during the primary season.
``We have supported public financing, but the unabashed actions of this president to undercut our Democratic process with floods of special interest money have forced us to abandon a broken system,″ the former Vermont governor said at a news conference.
By eschewing public money, Dean can spend unlimited amounts for the nomination and, if successful, through the summer before the general election season starts.
So can Bush, who has no Republican opponent. The president already has said he will go without public funds, as he did in the 2000 GOP primaries and raised a record $100-plus million.
That makes the 2004 race the first in which candidates from both major parties will forgo the Watergate-era public financing system for the primaries.
At least two of Dean’s rivals _ Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and retired Gen. Wesley Clark _ are also considering such a step.
Dean and his staff said he would consider limiting his spending in the primaries to the $45 million that would be available if he were accepting public financing, but no decision had been made.
``We just gave up almost $20 million, so we have to raise that money before we even have a discussion about it,″ Dean said later in the day.
Dean, the first 2004 hopeful to qualify for public money by raising $5,000 in each of 20 states in donations of $250 or less, told The Associated Press last March that he was committed to taking it, in part because he believed in an overhaul of the campaign finance system.
He began to rethink that plan over the summer after his campaign saw an unprecedented flood of contributions over the Internet.
Some Democrats were quick to note the turnabout.
``Governor Dean was saying what a Democratic principle it is to have campaign finance reform and what a big issue it would be if someone stepped outside,″ Kerry said Saturday in Manchester, N.H.
``That’s when he wasn’t raising a lot of money. Now, Mr. Change-Your-Opinion-for-Expediency is saying, `Oh, I’m now able to raise money. Maybe we should get out of the system.′ I think somewhere along the line, fundamental principles are important,″ Kerry said.
The campaign of Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said Dean’s action was a shame and urged Dean to ``comply with the spirit of the law _ and his own previous statements″ and restrict spending to levels allowed for those who accept federal money.
Rep. Dick Gephardt’s campaign manager, Steve Murphy, said the decision put Dean in the same league as Bush. ``Just like President Bush, Howard Dean has effectively undermined campaign finance laws for his own personal, opportunistic political advantage,″ Murphy said.
No major-party candidate has ever skipped public financing in the general election.
Each of the nominees selected at the Democratic and GOP conventions next summer will be eligible for about $74 million in government dollars for the Nov. 2 election and there has been no hint that either Bush or the eventually Democratic nominee will forgo those funds. Both Bush and Democrat Al Gore accepted federal funding for their general election campaigns in 2000.
Dean made his decision based on a high-tech tally of 600,000 supporters, whom he asked to vote by e-mail, Internet, telephone or regular mail through Friday.
Dean said 85 percent of those who weighed in _ 105,000, according to campaign officials _ urged him to opt out.
Candidates who accept public dollars in the primaries can get up to $18.7 million in taxpayer money but are limited to about $45 million in spending.
Dean raised almost $15 million during the latest three months of fund raising, through September, and campaign aides said supporters donated or pledged $5.3 million in the past two days.
With about $25 million raised through September, Dean will need a continued flood of contributions to make up for the $18.9 million in government money he is rejecting.
``We ask 2 million Americans to give us $100,″ Dean said. ``We believe 2 million Americans will borrow $100 simply for the pleasure of sending this president back to Crawford, Texas″ _ a reference to Bush’s prized ranch.
Party leaders and strategists have worried that public financing’s strict spending limits would leave the Democratic nominee low on cash after a series of bruising primaries. Bush, already closing in on $100 million for his re-election, would have tens of millions left to spend in the spring and summer.
The new campaign finance law doubled the individual contribution limit to $2,000. That makes the government match of up to $250 for each donation less attractive.
Dean said that more than 200,000 supporters have donated an average of $77 per person, and with the vote to abandon public financing, they have committed to raise more.
``They’ve overwhelmingly refused to be intimidated by George Bush and his cronies giving him $2,000 apiece,″ Dean said.
Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi said only 1,747 Dean contributors had reached the maximum of $2,000.
The campaign finance program was created after the 1970s Watergate scandal to try to reduce presidential candidates’ reliance on big donors. Congress has done little to it since, and even the system’s supporters say it has failed to keep pace with the cost of campaigns.
Associated Press Writer Sharon Theimer in Washington contributed to this report.