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Following the Money

PRESIDENTIAL candidates and voters have been well served by partial public financing during the nomination process in the past, and they can be again. But the system that was shown to be rickety in 2000 is now crumbling and needs major repairs.

With Senator John Kerry yesterday joining former Vermont governor Howard Dean and President Bush to opt out of the system, one of its main goals -- a fair contest among all major candidates -- is in the ditch, beyond rescuing for this campaign.

By abjuring public funds in the primary, Dean and Kerry will be able to spend far more than other Democrats in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and other states that will hold early primaries and caucuses. Meanwhile, Bush continues to rake in unprecedented millions, surging past the record $106 million he raised for the primaries in 2000.

The public financing system is not totally defunct. For those choosing to run on it -- so far this includes Representative Richard Gephardt, Senators John Edwards and Joe Lieberman, and, as of yesterday, former general Wesley Clark -- the system offers up to $18.7 million each in public financing if they raise that amount in contributions of $250 or less. This will help them run more credible campaigns without selling out to special-interest donors -- the second major goal of the law. Still, Bush, Kerry, and Dean will be able to buy far bigger megaphones, making the competition uneven.

There is no quick fix for the problem in this campaign. Voters will have to decide whether any of the three is in thrall to large donors or whether any should be penalized for using personal wealth to gain an unfair advantage over competitors. Dean is best positioned here, since most of his funds have come from a broad base in relatively small amounts.

But repairs to the system should be made well before 2008.

State-by-state spending limits are unrealistic for the current system with its crucial early contests and should be eliminated.

The $45 million individual spending limit for the primaries should be raised substantially.

Provision should be made for spending in the period between the effective selection of the nominee and the party convention. In this campaign, a Democrat in the system could secure the nomination by March but reach the $45 million limit and be defenseless until the national convention in July.

Costs could also be curtailed by mandating low-cost TV time and postage.

Kerry has a long record of leadership in supporting public financing of campaigns. Dean's rhetoric has been positive. And Bush, though without enthusiasm, signed the McCain-Feingold ban on soft money in campaigns. All should pledge to fix the system for 2008.

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