WASHINGTON – Five Democratic presidential hopefuls, including aggressive and early fund-raiser Sen. John Edwards, have committed to taking taxpayer dollars to help finance their campaigns.
A sixth, Sen. John Kerry, laid the groundwork for also accepting public financing with a letter to donors suggesting they could double their money by helping him qualify. His campaign said, however, that he had not decided whether to take the taxpayer money.
Like Edwards of North Carolina, former Vermont Gov. Howard 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.
"We hope other Democrats in the field do because we think it helps make Democratic voters feel more invested in the nominating process," Edwards spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said. "It keeps the focus of the campaign at the grass-roots level."
The three other candidates for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination -- Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and Florida Sen. Bob Graham -- have not yet announced whether they will take public funding.
Edwards began building a national donor network last year even before the fall congressional elections and opened the presidential campaign with an aggressive fund-raising blitz even as many of his rivals were just getting organized. He and Kerry have had the most fund-raisers crisscrossing the country.
Kerry will make his decision on public financing 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, spokesman David Wade said.
Unclear is whether the Massachusetts senator 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.
In fact, only donors' first $250 gets matched by the government.
Wade said the campaign knows that. 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.
To qualify, candidates must raise $5,000 from each of 20 states in contributions of $250 or less.
Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe has encouraged the hopefuls to consider forgoing public financing. McAuliffe said he felt President Bush took it off the table as a political issue in 2000 when he skipped it and raised more than $100 million on his way to winning the Republican nomination.
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.
Dean said he has already raised the $100,000 from a sampling of states needed to qualify for the public money. The former Vermont governor promised to make it an issue in the Democratic primaries if any of his rivals decide to skip public financing.
"I think most Democrats believe in campaign finance reform," he said.
Gephardt is likely to take public financing, though he has not made a decision, a spokesman said Friday. Graham is assembling his campaign team and has not decided on public financing, an aide said.