Striking it rich has a funny way of changing people. Back when Howard Dean was an underfunded underdog in the Democratic race, he swore allegiance to public matching funds--the system in which presidential candidates who agree to spending limits during the primaries receive federal dollars for a portion of the money they have raised. "We've always been committed to this," Dean declared. "Campaign-finance reform is just something I believe in."
But that was five months and many millions of dollars ago. Now that he's both the front runner and the Democrat poised to raise the most cash, the doctor is reassessing his prescription. Ultimately, President Bush may leave him no other choice. As he did in 2000, Bush is forgoing matching funds, freeing himself to spend the record $200 million he hopes to raise for the primaries--in which he is unopposed--to beat up on the Democratic nominee. Any Democrat who accepts matching funds must cap his spending at $45 million, leaving the candidate broke and defenseless from mid-March until the party conventions in late summer, when both nominees will collect roughly $75 million in public financing for the general election.
Though some rival campaigns accuse Dean of betraying the cause of campaign reform, they privately envy his fund-raising success. "It's not an option for us," rues a senior aide in one campaign. "We can't survive without the matching funds." Others, like John Kerry, are quietly watching to see what Dean decides. If Dean declines matching funds, sources close to the Kerry campaign say, the Massachusetts Senator may follow suit.
And if the nominees of both parties ignore the limits, created in the wake of Watergate, on financing presidential campaigns, "the system could become irrelevant," says Larry Noble of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. And that could lead to either the system's reform--with higher spending limits and more matching funds--or its demise. By James Carney