WASHINGTON – Howard Dean committed Friday to taking taxpayer dollars to finance his presidential campaign while fellow Democrat John Kerry laid the groundwork to do the same with a letter to donors suggesting they could double their money by helping him qualify.
In fact, only donors' first $250 gets matched by the government.
Like Dean, Al Sharpton, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich are committed to taking public financing and the spending limits that come with it, aides said. They are trying to raise the required amounts -- $5,000 from each of 20 states in contributions of $250 or less -- to qualify for the public money.
Former Vermont Gov. Dean said he has already met the requirement. He promised to make it an issue in the Democratic primaries if any of his rivals decide to skip public financing, as President Bush did en route to winning the Republican nomination in 2000.
"It will be a huge issue," Dean said. "I think most Democrats believe in campaign finance reform."
Sharpton, too, will make campaign finance and the role of special-interest donors an issue in his campaign, spokesman Roberto Ramirez said.
"The role of money in presidential politics has become so fundamentally the issue that the time has come for somebody to stand up and by sheer strength of message and vision and record, to say while there is a need for money, it has to stop," Ramirez said.
Kerry has not decided whether he will take public financing, spokesman David Wade said. The Massachusetts senator will make his decision in coming months based on how much he can raise, how much Bush amasses and how crowded the nine-member Democratic field remains as the primaries near, Wade said.
Unclear is whether Kerry would tap the personal fortune of his wife, Heinz food empire heiress Teresa Heinz Kerry. She has said she would consider making her fortune available to the campaign if the Kerrys face intense personal attacks.
Still, Wade said, "I think that's a lot of wishful thinking on a lot of people's parts. John's never run that way."
Kerry sent a fund-raising e-mail letter Friday encouraging donors to help him meet the requirements for matching funds.
"The Primary Matching Funds System could prove to be an enormous benefit to my campaign, but for it to work, I need your help," Kerry wrote. "By clicking here now you can help me raise the required $5,000 in your state.
"In addition, if I do end up qualifying for matching funds, your contribution is doubled -- yes doubled -- by the matching funds system!" he wrote.
Wade said the campaign knows that only the first $250 is matched. The letter was targeted at donors likely to give smaller amounts than that, he said.
If Kerry decides to opt out of public financing, the campaign will offer a refund to donors who gave as a result of Friday's letter, Wade said.
The presidential campaign fund is financed by taxpayers with a $3 checkoff on their tax returns. In 2000, those who accepted public financing, including then-Vice President Al Gore, were entitled to up to $16.9 million in matching funds. In exchange, they had to abide by spending limits; Gore could only spend $40.5 million in the Democratic primaries, for example.
Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe has encouraged the hopefuls to consider foregoing public financing.
McAuliffe said he felt Bush took it off the table as a political issue in 2000 when he skipped it and raised more than $100 million. With an increase in contribution limits under the nation's new campaign finance law, some of Bush's fund-raisers think he can raise $200 million or more for the primaries, money he could spend through the spring and summer to take on the presumptive Democratic nominee.
A spokeswoman for North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has said he likely would take public financing. Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt also is likely to, though he has not made a final decision, a spokesman said Friday.
Florida Sen. Bob Graham is assembling his campaign team and has not decided on public financing, an aide said.