Just 12 months ago, Senator presented himself as an idealistic upstart taking on the Democratic fund-raising juggernaut behind Senator .
That was when Mr. Obama proposed a novel challenge aimed at limiting the corrupting influence of money on the race: If he won the nomination, he would limit himself to spending only the $85 million available in public financing between the convention and Election Day as long as his Republican opponent did the same.
Now his challenge to his rivals has boomeranged into a test of Mr. Obama’s own ability to balance principle and politics in a very different context. After taking in $100 million in donations, Mr. Obama is the one setting fund-raising records, presenting a powerful temptation to find a way out of his own proposal so that he might outspend his Republican opponent. And the all-but-certain Republican nominee, Senator , is short on cash and eager to take up the fund-raising truce.
Mr. Obama was notably noncommittal about his previous proposal in Tuesday’s Democratic debate, indicating that he would add new conditions, especially on spending by independent groups, to his previous pledges to accept the deal. If nominated, “I will sit down with John McCain and make sure that we have a system that is fair to both sides,” Mr. Obama said, alluding to the need to close “loopholes.”
Campaign finance experts said the issue was a major test of Mr. Obama’s commitment. It is also a first glimpse of what might come in a general election fight between two candidates who have championed public integrity, opening themselves to accusations of hypocrisy.
On Wednesday, the McCain campaign stepped up its criticism of Mr. Obama after his statement at the debate.
“The fact is, Senator Obama signed a piece of paper and pledged to take public financing for his campaign if I did the same," Mr. McCain said. “I believe that Senator Obama should keep his commitment also, which means taking public financing. The rest of it is ground noise. The rest of it is irrelevant."
Some Democrats and Obama supporters, meanwhile, have sought to strike back at Mr. McCain by accusing him of exploiting the public financing system. They argue that Mr. McCain may have violated technicalities of the election laws by using his eligibility for public matching funds to help obtain a loan but then opting out of the matching funds at the last minute to avoid the spending restrictions they impose. “People aren’t exactly clear whether all the t’s were crossed and i’s were dotted,” Mr. Obama said in Tuesday’s debate. (The McCain campaign said it followed the law.)
The issue may be more sensitive for Mr. Obama, though, because has run in part on his record as an advocate of stricter government integrity rules, including the public financing system. Last February, he sought the election commission’s blessing on a public financing proposal in part to underscore his support for tighter election rules. (The filing was short of a commitment, but he later went further in a questionnaire from a coalition of government-integrity groups.)
Mr. Obama has argued that his campaign was already meeting the spirit of public financing laws because it had relied overwhelmingly on small donors instead of corporate patrons.
Still, with public financing for the general election phase of the campaign amounting to nearly $10 million a week, Mr. Obama’s hedging puzzles some.
“You ought to be able to run a campaign for two months on $85 million,” said , president of , which lobbies for stricter campaign finance laws. She called Mr. Obama’s recent remarks “a very bad signal.”
“This whole idea started with Senator Obama, and we think he and whoever the Republican nominee is ought to follow through,” said Fred Wertheimer, founder of the advocacy group Democracy 21.
David Plouffe, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, said the campaign would not make a decision until the Democratic primary is settled. But in a recent column in USA Today, Mr. Obama appeared to set some new conditions. He argued that any bipartisan agreement to accept the limits of public financing would be “meaningless” if there were no provisions to close the “loopholes” that allow unlimited spending during the long primary season or by independent outside groups.
The article cited a possible model for an agreement: one reached by Senator , a Democrat, and former Gov. William Weld, a Republican, in the 1996 Senate race in Massachusetts. That deal limited each campaign to spending about $7 million over the last four months of the race and counted any expenditure by an outside group seeking to help a candidate against that candidate’s limit. “We can have such an agreement this year, and it could hold up,” Mr. Obama wrote. “I am committed to seeking such an agreement if that commitment is matched by Senator McCain.”
Although Mr. Kerry and Mr. Weld later praised the deal as a positive step, it ended in accusations that each side had broken its word. With no real enforcement and no clear standard for judging outside spending, there was also no way to address issues until after the election.