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Dean May Opt for Private Funding of Primary Run

October 16, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times staff writer

WASHINGTON — Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is spending money in the Democratic presidential race at a historically rapid rate, heightening speculation that he may opt out of the public financing system and its limits on expenditures during next year's primaries.

Dean has emerged as the clear front-runner among the Democratic candidates in the race for money. None of the other Democratic contenders reached the $4-million mark in fund-raising from July through September, while Dean reported collecting $14.8 million, more than any Democrat ever seeking the White House has amassed in a single quarter, the campaigns say.

The candidates were required to file financial reports for the third quarter by midnight Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission.

For the year, Dean has raised about $25 million. But as striking as Dean's fund-raising is his spending: He may have spent nearly $9 million during the quarter, according to figures provided by his staff. That's significantly more than the $6.4 million that Al Gore, then the vice president, spent during the comparable period in 1999. And it's at least twice as much as was spent in that period by former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, who lost the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination to Gore.

That spending allowed Dean to invest heavily in advertising and campaign staff not only in Iowa and New Hampshire -- the first two crucial contests in the nomination race -- but also in other states that vote early next February, such as South Carolina, Arizona and Wisconsin.

"We are the only candidate running a national campaign," said Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager. "And running a national campaign is more expensive than running a one- or two- or three-state strategy, which is what most of the other candidates are doing."

None of the Democrats, however, has approached President Bush's fund-raising level: His campaign says it raised $49.5 million in the quarter, boosting the total he's collected this year to $85.2 million. The Bush campaign said it will report having more than $70 million on hand, far more than Dean's total of about $12 million, which was tops among the Democrats.

But by Democratic standards, Dean has been raising and spending money at a fevered pace. Aides calculate that during the third quarter, Dean spent about $2 million on advertising and staffing in the early-primary states. The remainder of his spending went to support his national staff, Internet operations, travel and fund-raising.

Dean is spending money at a rate that many analysts believe may cause him problems next year if he remains within the public financing system. That process provides the candidates with a federal match for part of their contributions, but it requires them to limit their spending to around $49 million in the race for the nomination.

Some analysts said the pace of Dean's fund-raising and spending might signal that he intended to pull out of the public system, which would allow him to spend unlimited sums. "At this level of spending, I think they have made the calculation that they are going to opt out," said Donna Brazile, Gore's 2000 campaign manger. Trippi said the Dean campaign wouldn't make that decision "for a while."

Bush has already opted out of the system -- as he did in 2000 -- and is planning to raise at least $170 million through the Republican convention early next September. After their parties' conventions, Bush and the Democratic nominee will be limited to spending public money.

If Dean opts out of the system, it may encourage other Democratic candidates to follow; Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts has already said he may pull out if Dean does.

Apart from retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who entered the race just before the third quarter ended on Sept. 30, none of the other Democrats reported strong fund-raising during the period. Clark raised about $3.5 million in about two weeks.

Clark also has done well in the polls since entering the race, taking the lead in some national surveys of Democrats.

Kerry raised only $3.95 million in the three-month period, according to his aides. That continued a steady decline in his performance, from $7 million during the January-March quarter to $5.9 million in the year's second quarter. In all, he's raised just under $17 million this year.

Kerry spent $7 million in the third quarter, almost as much as Dean. As a result, Kerry's cash on hand dropped from $10.9 million as of June -- at that point the most in the field -- to $7.8 million as of Sept. 30.

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who led the Democrats in fund-raising during the year's first quarter, saw his receipts plummet. Edwards collected just $2.6 million during the third period, including $400,000 transferred from a Senate fund-raising committee. That put his 2003 total at $14.5 million, third most in the field. Edwards spent nearly $6 million in the period, decreasing his cash on hand from $8.1 million at the end of June to $4.8 million as of Sept. 30.

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