Death Knell May Be Near for Public Election Funds

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The public financing system for presidential campaigns, a post-Watergate initiative hailed for decades as the best way to rid politics of the corrupting influence of money, may have quietly died over the weekend.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York became the first candidate since the program began in 1976 to forgo public financing for both the primary and the general election because of the spending limits that come with the federal money. By declaring her confidence that she could raise far more than the roughly $150 million the system would provide for the 2008 presidential primaries and general election, Mrs. Clinton makes it difficult for other serious candidates to participate in the system without putting themselves at a significant disadvantage.

Officials of the Federal Election Commission and advisers to several campaigns say they expect the two candidates who reach Election Day 2008 will raise more than $500 million apiece. Including money raised by other primary candidates, the total spent on the presidential election could easily exceed $1 billion....

he system is financed by taxpayers who check a box on their returns to allocate $3 to an election fund, with about 33 million people a year in recent years directing a total of about $400 million to each quadrennial presidential election.

But the fund has faced chronic shortfalls as the percentage of taxpayers contributing has declined to less than 10 percent last year from over 30 percent in the 1970s. Those who could tap wealthy supporters began looking for ways to outmaneuver it almost from the beginning.

In the 1980 Republican primary, for example, John B. Connally, the former Texas governor, became the first candidate to reject public money and outraise his rivals, but his candidacy failed to catch on.

By the mid-1980s, candidates and donors were circumventing the spending limits by raising unlimited “soft money” donations to party committees from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. The party committees used the money to help support a candidate’s presidential campaign or to attack his opponent.

In 2002, Congress changed the campaign finance laws to ban soft money contributions to party committees, and donors turned instead to so-called 527 groups, which could still spend unlimited contributions.

By 2000, two Republican candidates, the billionaire Steve Forbes and Mr. Bush, had turned down public money for the primary campaign. Mr. Bush became the first major-party nominee to do so. And in 2004, for the first time, both the Democratic and the Republican nominees turned down public financing for the primaries.

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