Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who has used the Internet to raise much of his campaign cash, is returning to cyberspace to poll supporters on a crucial strategic decision: whether to opt out of the federal campaign finance system for the presidential primary season.
In a unique two-way dialogue between a candidate and supporters, Dean posted a message late Tuesday on his campaign Web site asking whether he should forgo public financing as he seeks the Democratic presidential nomination. The message made a strong case for doing so; such a move would free Dean to raise and spend unlimited sums in pursuit of his party's nod.
President Bush has already pulled out, as he did in 2000.
"If we accept federal matching funds -- and the $45 million spending cap (for the nominating fight) that goes with it -- [Bush] will have a $170 million spending advantage against us," Dean wrote supporters. "I have always been committed to public financing. But the federal matching funds law ... is doing the opposite of what it intended. It could end up punishing a movement that has raised more from ordinary Americans than any campaign in history."
He invited nearly 500,000 e-mail recipients across the country to express their views over a 48-hour period beginning Thursday and ending Friday at midnight. He said the results would be announced Saturday.
Last week, while campaigning in California, Dean told potential supporters he had already decided to forgo public financing, according to people who attended the closed-door sessions.
A strategist at Dean headquarters insisted, however, that the candidate's mind was not made up.
"This is a binding vote," the strategist said Tuesday night. "Whatever our supporters decide is what this campaign is going to do."
If Dean opts out, he would become the first Democrat to decline federal matching funds since the program was started in 1976, during the political reform era that followed the Watergate scandal. The move would also fly in the face of statements Dean made earlier in the campaign, long before he became the fund-raising leader among the nine Democrats seeking the White House.
Democratic rivals were quick to criticize Dean after he posted his appeal to supporters Tuesday night.
"Before he was so flush with cash, Howard Dean was an ardent and passionate supporter of the matching-fund system," said Jim Jordan, manager of Kerry's campaign. "Now that his situation has changed, of course, so have his views on that system. More flip-flops, more politics of convenience, more politics as usual."
Advocates of campaign finance reform were more forgiving in their comments.
"My preference would be for the candidates to stay in, but there are extenuating circumstances that have been caused here by President Bush's decision," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a Washington organization that works for political reform.
"The Democrats are facing a real dilemma," said Larry Noble, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, another group that advocates campaign reform. "They need to raise money to battle among each other while President Bush is going to raise close to $200 million outside the system."
"I suspect other Democrats will make it an issue and will talk about Dean abandoning the public funding system," Noble added. "I suspect if he does go outside the system, the calculation is he can raise a lot more than $45 million and it's worth any political hit he takes."
Indeed, the argument Dean has made in private is that he needs to opt out of the system to remain competitive against Bush should he emerge as the Democratic presidential pick.
Bush, who is unopposed for the Republican nomination, should have more than enough money to sustain his campaign through the summer. But the winner of the Democratic race -- should that candidate abide by the federal financing system -- could be broke by March or April. That would leave the Democrat unable to mount a full-throttle campaign until the party's nominating convention in late July. At that point, the nominee will receive a $74-million check for the general election.
Dean referred to that scenario in his Web message, saying, "From March through August, [Bush and his backers] will be able to define and distort us, and we will have no way to defend ourselves."
Concerned about the potential financial disadvantage, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe has encouraged the party's candidates to consider abandoning the public-finance system.
After starting far back in the pack, Dean is the overwhelming leader in the Democratic money race. He has raised more than $25 million, including $14.8 million in the third quarter alone. And much of his money has come from relatively small donors in a position to give again.
The sum Dean collected in July, August and September -- a good deal via the Internet -- is the most any Democratic presidential hopeful has raised in a single quarter. No other Democratic candidate raised more than $4 million in the last period.
The presidential campaign funding system offers candidates an incentive -- a partial match of contributions -- in return for an agreement to abide by a limit on their spending. The system is financed by taxpayers with a $3 checkoff on their federal income tax returns.
Apart from the $45-million cap on overall spending, there are individual state limits. For instance, in the first primary state, New Hampshire, candidates are supposed to spend no more than $729,000.
By declining matching funds, candidates may spend as much money as they can collect, though they still must abide by limits that prevent an individual from giving more than $2,000 per election.
In the spring, when it looked as if Kerry might break the federal caps, Dean said it would be "a huge issue" if any Democratic candidate turned down public financing. "I think most Democrats believe in campaign finance reform," Dean said.
On Tuesday, a spokesman defended Dean's possible reversal of course. "The Dean campaign is campaign finance reform," said Jay Carson. "Public financing was intended to cut down on the influence of wealth and increase the voice of regular people in the voting process. This is exactly what this campaign has done."
Kerry, who is married to one of the nation's wealthiest women, Teresa Heinz Kerry, told the Boston Globe a few weeks ago that he would break the federal spending limits and reject public financing if Dean did so. "If Howard Dean decides to go live outside of it, I'm not going to wait an instant," he said. "Decision's made.... I'm not going to disarm."
For all their jockeying, none of the Democrats has approached Bush's record-shattering fund-raising performance. The president raised $49.5 million in the third quarter alone, boosting his total for the year to $85.2 million. He plans to raise at least $170 million through the GOP convention in September.
Bush, while opting out of the public-funding system in the primaries, has said he will would abide by the limits in the fall. He, too, will receive a $74-million federal check for the general election.