WASHINGTON — Get ready for the $500-million presidential campaign.
That's how much money some Democratic strategists think Barack Obama can raise for the fall election now that he has reversed field and decided to opt out of the public financing system that limits the election spending of presidential candidates.
Thursday's decision by the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is a blow to the campaign finance system and could hurt Obama's efforts to paint himself as a reformer. He is the first major White House hopeful to reject the public money, which would have amounted to $84.1-million for the two-month fall campaign, in the general election since it started in 1976.
His about-face opened Obama to charges of hypocrisy, leveled immediately by Republican rival John McCain. Several prominent advocates of the public finance system joined in the criticism.
Under the system, created after the Watergate scandals that plagued the 1972 presidential election, candidates are barred from raising private funds or spending their own money on their general election bids. The lump sum they receive from the Treasury is the only money they can spend once they are officially declared their party's nominee.
The system, paid for with the $3 contributions that taxpayers can make in their tax returns, has been ailing for years. Even as candidates of both parties accepted public funding beginning in 1976, they circumvented the system by raising hundreds of millions of dollars for the national Democratic and Republican parties.
Still, every major party candidate has accepted the fall election money, allowing them to boast that they were concentrating on issues and strategy without having to beg for money.
"Obama's decision may not be the death knell of public financing, but it certainly is close to it," said Anthony Corrado, a campaign finance expert and professor at Colby College.
Obama has proven himself to be a prodigious fundraiser who could easily raise more than the public fund supplies. Through the end of April, he brought in more than $265-million, compared with less than $97-million for McCain, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
In rejecting public funds, Obama contended that the financing apparatus was broken and that his Republican opponents were masters at "gaming" the system and would spend "millions and millions of dollars in unlimited donations" smearing him.
But it is not at all clear at this point that Republicans will have the advantage in support from independent groups. Republican activists have been fretting about the absence so far of any major independent effort, though the Republican National Committee has far more money in the bank than the Democratic National Committee.
Ka-ching on the trail
Obama's advisers said Thursday they believed that he could raise $200-million to $300-million for the general election campaign, not counting money raised for the Democratic National Committee, if he were freed from the shackles of accepting public money.
"Raising a half billion dollars is a very realistic figure for him," said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist.
Hours after the decision was announced, the Obama campaign unveiled its first television commercial of the general election campaign, which it is airing broadly in 18 states, including Florida and such deeply red states as North Dakota. It trumpets his "love of country" and "values straight from the Kansas heartland."
McCain, who said Thursday that he will take public financing, pounced quickly. Obama "said he would stick to his word," McCain said. "He didn't."
Adding to Obama's problem, pollster Brad Coker said, is McCain's longstanding reformer image. He fought for years, usually against fellow Republicans, to finally win enactment of the 2002 law banning so-called soft money — unlimited donations, even from corporate and union treasuries, that could be used for voter mobilization and party-building efforts.
Last year, Obama filled out a questionnaire where he vowed to "aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election." But since clinching the Democratic nomination this month, he has not broached the subject with McCain. The only discussion occurred about two weeks ago between Obama's and McCain's lawyers.
That meeting, said McCain counsel Trevor Potter, "was not part of any negotiation" on public financing. Obama lawyer Robert Bauer said that after his meeting with Potter, "It became clear to me, and I reported to the campaign, that there really wasn't a basis for further discussion."