The Washington Times

It might be a little premature to declare its demise, but among serious candidates, the use of federal matching funds in presidential primaries is dying. Far from a resource for a presidential primary campaign, matching funds have begun to look like an obstacle to raising what’s necessary to be competitive.

This primary season, the maximum in matching funds for which a candidate is eligible is $18.6 million. Participating candidates must agree to limit their spending to twice that total. In addition, the law imposes population-based restrictions on the amount a campaign can spend in each state, a serious hindrance if you think, for example, that everything is on the line for you in South Carolina.

The way major candidates increasingly see things, the questions are these: Is $37 million enough? And do the state-by-state restrictions impose excessive strictures on overall campaign strategy? The answers are “no” and “no” again.

George W. Bush opted out of federal matching funds in 2000, thus enabling him to raise and spend in excess of the cap, and he has done so again this year, on the assumption that he can readily raise the $100 million or more that his campaign envisions spending before the Republican convention in September. Howard Dean, whose campaign was raking in substantial dollars over the Internet, asked his supporters’ permission to drop out of the public funding system he had long supported. Unsurprisingly, he got it. John Kerry followed suit, opening the door to unlimited use of his own funds. He took out a $6 million mortgage on his Boston home and was also reportedly prepared to borrow against his art collection. His upset victory in the Iowa caucuses has led to an infusion of contributions.

The problem is one Bob Dole found out about in 1996. He crossed the finish line for the GOP nomination only after enduring a brutal onslaught from the self-financed Steve Forbes. The campaign was out of money, and the rules are such that Mr. Dole would not become eligible for additional funds until the nominating convention. Bill Clinton, meanwhile – whose aggressive fund raising in 1996 would become a matter of controversy – had his entire pile of money, including federal matching funds of $13.4 million, at his disposal. Mr. Clinton had no primary opposition, so he was well-positioned to tee off on Mr. Dole.

We could easily have been in for a 2004 replay of this scenario, but with the parties reversed and with the incumbent president’s fundraising on steroids. Mr. Bush’s campaign was hoping that Democrats would stay within the system. They would bash at each other, spending all their available primary money, until a nominee emerged, broke and perhaps bloodied. At which point Mr. Bush would open up with a $100 million broadside the Democrat would be unable to counter.

Indeed, the stepped-up Democratic primary schedule this year was designed not only to avoid a protracted and potentially damaging fight among the contenders. It was also done in the hope that the early-emerging nominee would still have enough money left within the matching funds system to begin the campaign against Mr. Bush.

Mr. Bush still has his $100 million broadside to launch. But if the presumptive nominee is either Mr. Kerry or Mr. Dean, the Democrats will be well-positioned to go back to contributors for resources to answer the president. This poses a huge electability problem for the other three leading candidates: John Edwards, Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman, who are operating within the matching funds system. In truth, it would be recklessly imprudent for Democrats to nominate one of them. They will be broke and vulnerable through the August convention. If either of them starts to score big with voters, the party may be looking at a funding problem of a magnitude that could wreck Democrats’ hopes of unseating the incumbent.

On the other hand, one of the unlimited candidates – in exchange for the promise of the vice presidency? – could stay in and become the vehicle for donations to press the attack against Mr. Bush. The legality of this would be questionable, but the stakes are sufficiently high that the likely decision would be to press ahead and let the lawyers sort it out later.

Hereafter, I think, public funds in presidential primaries will be for minor candidates who are running just to make a point. The test of a candidate’s credibility a year out from the general election will be whether he or she can opt out. There’s enough money sloshing around out there to fully fund serious aspirants from both parties.

After the convention, each major party candidate will be eligible for a grant of about $74 million in public funds for the general election – which is all each candidate is allowed to spend. This year, Mr. Bush and his Democratic challenger are all but certain to take the grant. But I’d bet that at some point, some candidate decides that that’s just not enough. Matching funds are for losers.