A day after John Edwards said he had decided to participate in public campaign financing as a matter of principle, his campaign manager appeared to scale back the candidate’s initial commitment.
The campaign manager said Mr. Edwards was leaving open the possibility of rejecting public financing for the general election campaign.
Mr. Edwards’s campaign advisers said he had not meant to commit himself for the general election, but the discrepancy added fuel to a debate over why he had abruptly embraced public financing after long signaling that he would not.
In an interview with CNN on Thursday, Mr. Edwards said he was accepting the benefits and limits of public financing to support the system, which was adopted after Watergate to limit campaigns’ dependence on big donors. Asked about the general election, Mr. Edwards told CNN, “We are talking about through the campaign, period.”
“It’s not about a money calculation,” he said. “This is about taking a stand, a principled stand, for what’s right. I believe in public financing.”
On Friday, however, his campaign manager, David E. Bonior, a former House member from Michigan, said Mr. Edwards might reject public financing for the general election unless the Republican nominee also agreed to take public financing.
Mr. Edwards “understands that almost none of the Republican candidates share this commitment,” Mr. Bonior wrote. “Accordingly, we will continue to raise money for the general election so we will be ready to compete against the Republican nominee.”
Qualifying his statement
In an interview Friday, Joe Trippi, a senior Edwards campaign adviser, said Mr. Edwards had meant to say that he was committed only to a proposal that his rival, Senator Barack Obama, had extended to the Republicans. If the Republican nominee agrees to accept public campaign financing and its limits, Mr. Obama and now Mr. Edwards have said they would do the same.
“He was thinking of the Obama challenge to the Republican nominee,” Mr. Trippi said, adding that Mr. Edwards would “entertain” relying on public financing even if the Republican does not. It was unclear why Mr. Edwards had not merely extended the same challenge to his better-financed Democratic primary rivals, Mr. Obama and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Both have trounced Mr. Edwards in fund-raising, each ending the second quarter with more than twice his $13 million in the bank.
Mr. Trippi argued that the decision to accept the matching funds would multiply the campaign’s resources for the crucial early primary states without imposing meaningful spending restrictions until later in the season. Mr. Trippi said the campaign expects to end the third quarter with about $9 million in cash on hand, having raised $7 million in the quarter and $30 million so far this year; public financing would provide a lump payment of as much as $21 million at the beginning of the year, matching the first $250 from each Edwards contributor.
But other campaigns called his decision a short-sighted gamble. If Mr. Edwards won the early primary states, the spending limits would then force him to rely largely on the Democratic Party and independent liberal groups to defend against any attacks from the Republicans.
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine this year that was reported on its Web site Friday, Mr. Trippi predicted that accepting public financing would leave a nominee “flat broke like Mike Dukakis” while having the stuffing “kicked out of him all summer long.”
On Friday, Mr. Trippi said the statement predated his focus on the current race, reflecting an attitude left over from the campaign against President Bush in 2004 rather than a Republican who would emerge from his own primary fight.
Although the presidential public financing system imposes state limits as well as a total spending cap, the restrictions are very loose. The state caps apply only to television and radio advertising or to direct mail that is sent within 28 days before the vote. The caps do not restrict spending on salaries, rent, travel or other expenses.
There are ways around the advertising caps as well. Campaigns can often buy advertising in nearby cities just across the state line to reach inside a state without applying the full cost to the state’s cap. And the rules allow campaigns to spend 50 percent more than the cap in a limited number of states. The cap on advertising spending in Iowa is about $1.5 million, but a campaign could use neighboring cities and the other exemptions to spend as much as $3 million.
By comparison, in the last campaign Senator John Kerry spent about $3 million on advertising in Iowa and Howard Dean spent about $3.5 million, both operating outside the restrictions of public financing.
The $50 million cap on total primary spending, however, is more onerous. It applies to all expenditures, including salaries and travel, with very limited loopholes. If Mr. Edwards were to emerge from the early primaries at the head of the pack, he would not have much room left under his $50 million budget. He would be forced to rely on the Democratic Party and independent liberal groups to defend him from Republican attacks until the formal start of the general election.
Tom Reynolds, communications director for the Democratic primary campaign of Gov. Bill Richardson, who has trailed Mr. Edwards in fund-raising, said the Richardson campaign considered public financing too dangerous. “Republicans can attack and we wouldn’t be able to respond. It is a severe challenge,” Mr. Reynolds said.
Mr. Trippi, though, said the risk was worth it, given the campaign’s current odds. “Is there risk in doing this?” he said. “Yeah, of course, but we are up against two of the biggest funded campaigns ever.”
If Mr. Edwards did come out of the early primaries a winner, “We will have somehow defeated Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton,” he said. “There comes a point when there is not enough money in the world to knock down someone who has knocked off the likes of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.”