WASHINGTON -- Presidential candidate John F. Kerry may delay his official nomination for about a month after the Democratic National Convention in late July, a highly unusual tactic that his campaign said would erase President Bush’s financial advantage in the general election.
The strategy is fraught with legal and political complications, but Kerry advisors said it would address his major handicap heading into the fall: the prospect of having to make his public financing last five weeks longer than President Bush.
Once Bush and Kerry are officially nominated by their parties, they will no longer be permitted to raise and spend private donations. Instead, each will receive $75 million in federal funds for the general election.
By postponing his official nomination -- an unparalleled move for a presidential candidate -- Kerry could spend his privately raised donations for longer and receive his public funding at about the same time as Bush. The president is to be nominated at the Republican convention in early September in New York, five weeks after Democrats gather in Boston.
The Massachusetts senator demurred when asked about the possible delay of his nomination.
“The decision hasn’t been made,” Kerry told The Times. “But I am for anything that would level the playing field.”
The prospect of a delayed nomination underscored the increasingly potent role money is playing in the 2004 presidential campaign. It also illustrated the continuing erosion of the public financing system, as candidates seek new ways to maximize what they can raise and spend.
The risk for Kerry of postponing his official nomination is dampening media interest in the four-day convention, which historically has provided presidential candidates with invaluable television exposure to voters.
The gatherings provide an opportunity for candidates, particularly challengers, to drive home their message and personal story to a national audience. Kerry would still deliver a speech, aides said, but without the official imprimatur of the nomination, it is unclear how much weight it would carry.
That the campaign was considering such a drastic step in order to recover a financial advantage immediately provoked consternation among campaign finance reform advocates and puzzlement from the rival camp.
Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for Bush’s reelection effort, said postponing the nomination would negate the entire purpose of the convention.
“Why have a convention at all?” he asked. “You’re going to get up there and say you’re not the presidential nominee? It’s kind of odd.”
The campaign and the Democratic Party have not determined how to technically accomplish the delay. Because the Federal Elections Commission considers nominees official once they get the requisite number of delegate votes, the party may have to skip over the customary floor vote that includes the roll call of the states. But it is unclear when or how the delegates would vote.
It may be up to the FEC’s six commissioners to determine whether Democrats could delay the nomination for the purposes of receiving federal campaign money, said FEC spokesman Ian Stirton.
“They will make those sorts of decisions if something doesn’t appear particularly clear in the regulations,” he said.
But Bob Bauer, an attorney who has been studying the matter for the Democratic Party, said he does not believe the FEC will need to get involved, noting that the party has responsibility for the timing of the nomination.
“We think we can pursue it quite lawfully,” Bauer said. “There are a whole host of ways that the decision of the delegates to select their nominee can be timed differently.”
Kerry aides stressed that the idea of delaying his nomination was still in the early stages, and one of several options being considered, such as relying on state parties and the DNC to raise money through the fall.
However, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the chairman of the Democratic National Convention, released a statement Friday night indicating he believes a decision has all but been made.
“Gov. Bill Richardson supports Sen. Kerry’s position to level the financial playing field with President Bush and believes the step he has taken makes sense in order to be competitive,” Richardson said in a prepared statement from his spokesman Billy Sparks.
At least one network executive said that the absence of an official nomination would likely affect coverage of the event.
“We don’t like hearing about one more piece of news that’s not going to happen at a convention,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, executive producer of NBC News’ election coverage.
“Every four years we face a difficult decision: what to do, how much to cover. These are big efforts, expensive efforts.”
Convention organizers insisted there would still be public interest.
“The convention is the one time that the nation can tune in as a whole and see the nominee lay out his vision in an unfiltered, uninterrupted format,” said Peggy Wilhide, communications director for the Democratic National Convention Committee.
However, some political experts said the tactic could turn off voters who may view it as a crassly political move.
“It looks strange,” said Anthony Collings, a former CNN Washington correspondent who teaches communication studies at the University of Michigan.
“You think of the convention as the formal culmination of this nominating process,” he said. “And now he wants to change something that we’ve gotten used to over the years so he can spend more money?”
Through most of American history, presidential candidates stayed away from the conventions -- usually accepting the draft weeks later when it was delivered by delegation. Franklin D. Roosevelt broke that “absurd tradition” in 1932 when he traveled to Chicago to receive the Democratic nomination and to promise “a new deal for the American people.”
Campaign finance experts said Friday that the concept of postponing Kerry’s nomination demonstrated how vulnerable campaign finance reforms are to candidates determined to find an advantage.
“It’s an extreme option that shows [Democrats] are looking for ways to continue to compete against the president right through,” said Anthony Corrado, a campaign finance expert at the Brookings Institution.
Others bemoaned the potential tactic as a sign that the public campaign finance system was being rendered obsolete.
Steven Weissman, assistant director for policy of the Campaign Finance Institute affiliated with George Washington University, said the current spending limits for candidates who accept federal funds under a program established in 1974 are no longer realistic.
“There’s a huge amount of money out there,” Weissman said. “They’re just gaming the system.”
Indeed, Kerry and Bush have been shattering fundraising records. Kerry has been raising more money than Bush lately, although the president holds an advantage over the presumptive Democratic nominee in terms of cash in the bank, $72 million to $28 million.
For the first time, the two major presidential candidates opted out of public financing for the primaries, allowing them to raise unlimited donations until the conventions. Previous candidates -- especially nonincumbents -- who abided by the spending limits for primaries often ran out of money by the time their conventions began and couldn’t get the public money for the general election fast enough.
That was incentive for candidates in elections past to schedule the convention early. For Kerry and Bush, who have been freed up to raise private donations, the incentive was just the opposite -- to delay accepting capped funds as long as possible.
Times staff writers Nick Anderson, Ronald Brownstein, Lisa Getter and Elizabeth Jensen contributed to this report.