Washington -- In a controversial but not unexpected move, Sen. Barack Obama has opted out of the public financing system for presidential candidates.
The decision by the presumptive Democratic nominee, announced to supporters in an Obama video message Thursday morning, makes the senator the first major-party candidate to depart the system for the general election since its inception in 1976.
Senator Obama had strongly suggested he would stay within the system earlier in the campaign, but as he racked up impressive fundraising totals in his run for the nomination, it became clear that he could be better funded by forgoing public financing.
In a Monitor breakfast held moments after Obama's announcement, two senior campaign officials laid out the rationale for opting out. They blamed Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee and a longtime advocate for campaign-finance reform, for gaming the system. They also blamed so-called 527 groups, which operate independently of the campaigns and which can take unlimited and unregulated donations, for rendering public financing unworkable.
"This system is broken," said Robert Gibbs, communications director of the Obama campaign, at the Monitor event. "It's now being manipulated and gamed by entities that possess and spend far in excess of what is allocated to each of the candidates to spend in the general."
If Obama had opted to stay in the federal system, he would have been granted $84.1 million in taxpayer money to compete in the general election. But Obama's fundraising prowess -- he raised a record $55 million in February alone -- means he will likely have far in excess of that to compete against McCain.
Obama's campaign appears to be gambling that it's worth it to take a hit now for backtracking on its stated intent to stay in the federal system but reap the larger benefits of a financially flush campaign.
The McCain campaign fired back with its reaction: "Today, Barack Obma has revealed himself to be just another typical politician who will do and say whatever is most expedient for Barack Obama," wrote communications director Jill Hazelbaker in a statement. "The true test of a candidate for president is whether he will stand on principle and keep his word to the American people. Barack Obama has failed that test today, and his reversal of his promise to participate in the public financing system undermines his call for a new type of politics."
During the primaries, Obama had said that if he won the nomination, he would meet with McCain to work out a fair way to finance the campaigns. The meeting did not take place.
Robert Bauer, general counsel to the Obama campaign, said at the breakfast that he met with his counterpart on the McCain campaign, Trevor Potter, but by the time they met, it was clear to him the McCain campaign was already well into its own private-funding plan in conjunction with the Republican National Committee (RNC).
"There comes a point where it's so obvious it's merely a messaging effort and not a good-faith effort to meet us on competitive terms," Mr. Bauer said. "It's not clear what there was to talk about."
In alleging in his video that the McCain campaign has become a master "at gaming this broken system," Obama slammed his opponent and the RNC for accepting contributions from lobbyists and special-interest political action committees. He also scored McCain for not stopping attacks from 527 groups.
The Obama campaign officials acknowledged that 527s operate, by law, independently of the candidates, but they said the candidates can still make it clear when they disapprove of the groups' activities. When McCain said last week that "I can't be a referee of every spot run on television," Bauer said, that effectively gave a "green light" to 527 activities.
Bauer also accused McCain of pretending to have the option of a publicly funded general-election campaign, while privately doing aggressive fundraising during the months between securing the GOP nomination in February and his party's convention in September.
There is wide agreement within both parties and among experts that the public-financing system is broken. In January 2007, Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin and three House members introduced legislation aimed at updating the presidential public-financing system in part by increasing matching funds, but the legislation has not gone anywhere.
"I'm very much in favor of public financing. However, the existing public-financing law has been flawed from the start," says Robert Mutch, a campaign-finance historian. "The main problem with the public-financing system for nearly the last 30 years is that it became too easy to get around it."
Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.
Washington -- As the 2008 general election campaign kicks off, both major candidates are surveying the smorgasbord of states before them and see a table groaning with possibilities.
Both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain see openings in states won by the opposing party in recent cycles. For Senator Obama of Illinois, demographic changes have made red states such as Virginia, Colorado, and North Carolina competitive. For Senator McCain of Arizona, Obama's poor primary showing among some traditional Democratic constituencies in crucial blue states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan has created an opening.
One need look no further than the two presumptive nominees' schedules to see the strategies in operation. This week, Obama is in Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin -- only the last of which was won (barely) by Democratic nominee John Kerry four years ago. Last week, Obama launched his general election campaign in Virginia, a state that President Bush won four years ago by 9 points, and which both 2008 campaigns now consider competitive -- the most dramatic entry into the ranks of battleground states.
McCain's presence Wednesday in Philadelphia, where he will hold a town-hall meeting, signals his intention to poach a blue state rich with Reagan Democrats -- and a critical 21 electoral votes of the 270 needed to win the presidency.
"It is an absolute must-win state for Obama; if he loses it, I think it's almost impossible for him to win the election, because he's also likely losing Ohio and Florida," says Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
McCain is competitive in Pennsylvania, Mr. Madonna says, "because he is able to attract independents."
But for now, analysts say, the overall electoral map tilts toward Obama. The floundering economy, the Iraq war, and an unpopular Republican president all work against McCain, and if Obama can secure the states that Senator Kerry won in 2004, that's already 252 electoral votes -- with just 18 to go for the presidency. Ohio alone (20 electoral votes) gets him there. So does a combination of Iowa (7), Colorado (9), and Nevada (5) or New Mexico (5), all states considered ripe for the picking by Obama.
The Obama campaign, flush with cash and fresh off a highly competitive nomination race that required organization building in every state, is promising a 50-state effort in the general election.
"Today, I am proud to announce that our presidential campaign will be the first in a generation to deploy and maintain staff in every single state," Obama's deputy national campaign director, Steve Hildebrand, announced Monday in an e-mail to supporters.
All campaigns, of course, say they are competing everywhere; there's no point in discouraging core voters in safe states, and making those electoral votes less than automatic -- or missing opportunities in the opposition's seemingly safe states. But this time around, with the environment weighing so heavily in the Democrats' favor, a 50-state strategy may seem a bit less pie in the sky.
Republicans have lost three normally safe congressional seats this year in special elections, and signs point to another "wave" election, following the wave of 2006, when the Democrats swept the Republicans out of the leadership in both the House and the Senate.
Even though McCain is competitive with Obama so far in national polls, he faces a generic Republican vs. Democrat environment that favors the Democrats by a double-digit margin.
Also in Obama's back pocket is a large pool of unregistered black voters in states he hopes to make competitive. As of 2004, according to Census numbers, Georgia alone had 500,000 African-Americans who were not registered to vote. The Obama campaign is aggressively courting those voters with the prospect of electing the nation's first black president -- and thus many political handicappers put Georgia in the "lean McCain" column, not in his base.
North Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana are also in same boat, with large untapped populations of black voters that could make those states competitive. Even if Obama does not win there, he could force the less-well-funded McCain to divert resources to them.
David Bositis, an expert on the black vote at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, notes that the states with the biggest black populations are also the most racially polarized.
"Senator Obama is not going to win these states just with black voters," he says. "He has to have some prospect of doing reasonably well with white voters."
Mississippi may be beyond reach, but states like North Carolina and Georgia, with influxes of upper-income, young, and educated white voters could become competitive with a large-enough black turnout.
"If they [the Obama campaign] can turn out enough new voters and combine them with progressive whites and even bring back some Reagan Democrats, they can be competitive," says Kerry Haynie, a political scientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "The economy is in the tank, and it gives them an opening."
President Bush's veto last week of legislation supporting embryonic stem-cell research put the issue to rest for now, at least in Congress. But as a political matter, the issue is far from over. On Monday, presidential spokesman Tony Snow softened the rhetoric on stem cells, saying that Mr. Bush in fact does not consider the destruction of human embryos for such research to be "murder," but rather "the destruction of human life."
To supporters of such research, the shift signaled a concern that the White House needed to reach out to moderate Republican voters who are vital in several key races, many in suburban districts, as the GOP seeks to keep control of Congress. And in races across the country, stem-cell research remains a hot topic, one that Democrats -- and a few Republicans -- are hoping will make the difference, even amid a crowded issue agenda that puts Iraq, gas prices, and immigration at the top of the list. The thinking is that just about everyone knows someone with a medical condition that scientists say could be helped someday through such research.
"It's not that [stem-cell research] is a silver-bullet issue," says Amy Walter, who tracks House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Rather, "it's a way to connect with suburban swing voters on social issues, but one that is not as polarizing as abortion."
The list of races where embryonic stem-cell research is playing a role continues to grow: At least two Republican House members -- both representing suburban districts and locked in tough reelection races -- changed their positions in last week's failed attempt to override Bush's veto. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania and Dave Reichert of Washington are both now in synch with their Democratic opponents, who favor additional federal funding of research.
In suburban Chicago, the issue is prominent in two tight House races -- one to fill the seat of retiring Republican Henry Hyde and the other, first-term Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean's race against Republican David McSweeney, in which the issue has figured from the start of the race.
But the state with the most focused attention is Missouri, where a ballot initiative supporting research has stoked the embryonic stem-cell issue in races up and down the ballot. It plays prominently in the battle between first-term Sen. Jim Talent and his opponent, Democratic state auditor Claire McCaskill.
And in a race for the Missouri state senate, a group supporting a primary challenger to Sen. Matt Bartle (R) put up a TV ad earlier this month focused solely on stem-cell research. It features a wheelchair-bound young man who was injured in a diving accident, calling on voters to support the challenger, Bob Johnson. "Don't outlaw hope in Missouri," says the man, Robert Willis.
Two other new TV ads mentioning or focusing on embryonic stem-cell research have aired this month: One is paid for by former Colorado state Sen. Ed Perlmutter, who is running in the Aug. 8 primary to compete for the open US House seat. Mr. Perlmutter's ad supports public funding of research and features his daughter, who has epilepsy.
The newest ad, which aired the day of the Bush veto, was in Wisconsin on behalf of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, praising him on a range of issues, from stem-cell research to taxes to education. That type of ad, placing stem cells among a range of issues, is the more probable model for political ads this fall, says Ms. Walter.
The stem-cell issue is also figuring in Senate races in Ohio, Virginia, Montana, and Minnesota, and in House races in New Jersey and New York. Looking over the national landscape, Evan Tracey, a political advertising expert at TNS Media Intelligence, says the stem-cell issue will be "somewhat regionalized.... Obviously, this isn't an issue anyone will engage in the deep South."
Carl Forti, spokesman for the House Republican campaign committee, predicts that the embryonic stem-cell issue won't figure in the November outcome. "Most members voted the way their districts wanted them to," he says.
Still, Mr. McSweeney, the Republican challenger in Illinois's 8th congressional district, voices some frustration over how the stem-cell issue is playing in his race. He says he believes his position is often distorted to make it sound as if he opposes all stem-cell research.
"I'm a big supporter of adult stem-cell research," he says. "I'm just opposed to federally funding embryonic stem-cell research."