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McCain and Obama skirmish on financing

John McCain’s campaign said it stood by a pledge made with Barack Obama to accept public financing in the general election if the other did so, but Obama’s campaign refused to reaffirm the pledge.
/ Source: The New York Times

Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign said Thursday that it stood by a year-old pledge made with Senator Barack Obama that each would accept public financing for the general election if the nominee of the opposing party did the same. But Mr. Obama’s campaign refused to reaffirm its earlier commitment.

The McCain campaign’s latest stand on the issue was first reported Thursday by The Financial Times. On Tuesday, one of Mr. McCain’s advisers told The New York Times that the campaign had decided to forgo public financing in the general election, an awkward admission for a senator who has made campaign finance reform a central part of his political persona.

That adviser was speaking on the assumption that Mr. Obama, who has broken all records in political fund-raising and is currently drawing more than $1 million a day, would find a way to retreat from the pledge in order to outspend his opponent in the fall by far. Under public-financing rules, the nominees are restricted to spending about $85 million each for the two-month general election campaign, far less than what Mr. Obama might be able to raise on his own.

On Thursday, in an effort by the McCain campaign to speak with one voice and put the onus for abandoning the system on Mr. Obama, several McCain advisers called on him to make good on his pledge. Mr. Obama was the candidate who proposed the pledge in the first place, in February 2007, a time when he was not raising the prodigious sums he is now.

Mr. McCain, co-author of the McCain-Feingold act of 2002, which placed new restrictions on campaign financing, was the only other candidate to take Mr. Obama up on his pledge.

“We have a candidate who is quite serious about taking public funds if Obama does,” Mark Salter, a senior adviser to Mr. McCain, said Thursday. “It’s not a game to McCain.” Mr. Obama, Mr. Salter said, “gave his word, and he either places value on that or he’s just fooling voters.”

Bill Burton, the Obama campaign’s national press secretary, responded to Mr. Salter by saying Mr. Obama would deal with the matter later.

“We will address that issue in the general election, when we’re the nominee,” Mr. Burton said. “We’re just not entertaining hypotheticals right now.”

Mr. Burton’s remarks drew a sharp reaction from Fred Wertheimer, president and chief executive of Democracy 21, a group that advocates tighter campaign finance rules.

“I’m concerned with the position the Obama campaign is taking,” Mr. Wertheimer said. “He is now saying this is an option. But they made a commitment in 2007 to do this. There were no conditions, no arguments, that ‘we’ll decide this when we get the nomination.’ I think it’s very important for Senator Obama to reaffirm the commitment that he made.”

Mr. Wertheimer also pointed to one of Mr. Obama’s responses to a questionnaire released in November by the Midwest Democracy Network, an alliance of 20 civic and public-interest groups in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Asked if he would participate in the public-financing system if he was nominated for president and his major opponents agreed to do the same, Mr. Obama wrote yes. Then he added, also in writing, “If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.”

As the two campaigns dueled, people on both sides said it was possible that they would agree to accept public financing and then simply have each political party spend unlimited amounts on behalf of its candidate, including money for voter mobilization efforts and television commercials, as allowed by law.