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McCain turns down public matching funds for primary

WASHINGTON – Sen. John McCain, a passionate advocate of limits on campaign finances, is turning down government matching funds for the primary to free him to spend more money as he prepares for a general election contest.

McCain, who appears headed to win the Republican presidential nomination, sent letters to the Federal Election Commission and the Treasury Department notifying them of his decision to withdraw from the presidential election financing system.

McCain had asked to participate in the public system last summer when his campaign, fundraising and poll numbers hit a low point that threatened to unravel his candidacy.

Though the FEC declared him eligible to receive $5.8 million in December, the money would not have become available until next month. By accepting the money, McCain would have been required to limit his spending for the primary to about $54 million – an amount the campaign is close to reaching.

By not taking the money, McCain is free to raise more and to promote his presidential candidacy until the Republican nominating convention in September.

Campaign officials said McCain could still participate in the public financing system in the general election, when the nominees for the two parties would be eligible for about $85 million to spend between their nominating conventions and Election Day on Nov. 4.

McCain was the only remaining presidential candidate in either party who had been certified for primary public funds. His remaining GOP rivals, Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and Democratic Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton did not ask the FEC to be part of the public system. The money, which comes from the $3 taxpayers can set aside in their tax returns, matches the amount of money candidates raise in contributions of $250 or less.

In 2004, President Bush and Democrats Howard Dean and Sen. John Kerry did not participate in the primary public money system. This year, even more candidates chose to bypass it. Campaign finance experts say the system has become obsolete because it places unrealistic restrictions on candidate spending.

McCain obtained a $3 million line of credit in November, but did not secure the loan with the matching funds. He used his fundraising list and a personal life insurance policy as collateral.

“I will make no further requests for matching-fund payment certification and will not accept any matching-fund payments including the initial amount and other amounts certified by the commission in connections with my campaign’s previous submissions,” McCain wrote in a letter to the FEC last week.

Past requests by candidates to withdraw from the system, including ones from Elizabeth Dole in 2000 and Dean in 2004, have been approved by a vote of the election commission. But the commission currently does not have a quorum and would be unable to approve McCain’s request.

Bob Biersack, a spokesman for the FEC, said that while the practice of the FEC had been to vote on such requests, it is not required by law.

“The statute says a vote of four commissioners is required to certify someone as eligible,” he said. “There is nothing in the statute that talks about withdrawing from the program.”

Brad Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and now a law professor at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, said McCain should have no legal impediment because he has not received any public money and he does not appear to have encumbered it.

“The best interpretation of the law is that he can do this,” Smith said.

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