Washington Matters


McCain May Need Monied Friends He Doesn't Have



John McCain may be in dire need of help this spring and summer -- and he'll need it from the deep-pocketed friends and supporters who take a pretty dim view of his advocacy for campaign reform.

This is McCain's fix, as fine a Catch-22 as can be found in government and politics: Because of a complicated loan that he took out when his campaign was in tatters, McCain has been told he needs permission from the Federal Election Commission to withdraw from the public campaign finance program. Otherwise, he'll be handcuffed until September by severe spending limits. But McCain can't get that permission because the FEC lacks a quorum.

There are four vacancies on the six-member commission and three nominees are snarled in a Senate dispute. Several  Democrats, including Democratic Sen. Barrack Obama, object to one of the nominees and are holding up the vote. (Bush has not nominated a fourth.)

The first place McCain could turn for help is Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who could agree to break tradition and allow the Senate to vote separately on the two non-controversial ones. But McConnell is loathe to break precedent. Second, McConnell has long been McCain's fiercest and most vocal opponent in battles over campaign finance reforms. Although McCain's troubles have nothing to do with the reforms passed earlier in the decade, McConnell is probably quietly pleased at the sight of a campaign finance reformer entangled in campaign finance law.

Next stop? President Bush. He could withdraw the nomination and put forward someone less controversial. That's unlikely, too. Bush is livid over the nomination battles he's faced and is unlikely to make a concession on the chance -- not a certainty -- that it might make McCain's life easier.

If McCain has to comply with the limits, he will have a little over a million dollars to spend between now and September. Compare that to Obama or Hillary Clinton, neither of whom are bound by the limits and could raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars for the same period to run ads, build campaign organizations in key states and start-up registration and get out the vote campaigns.

McCain wouldn't be completely without resources. The Republican National Committee can spend nearly $20 million on activities coordinated directly with McCain's campaign, including support staff, office rental and ads between now and Election Day. More important, there is no limit on what the RNC can spend independently on his behalf -- but with no guidance from his campaign -- including advertising. Party help is crucial; while contributors are not allowed to give more than $2,300 to a candidate in each election cycle, the limit for contributions to the national parties is $28,500. Pleas for help could produce a handy amount of cash to spend on McCain's behalf. State and local party organizations could double organizing efforts on the ground. But the party is spread thin financially and McCain's race is not its only priority. There are dozens of competitive House, Senate and governors races where GOP candidates will need help. The party won't want to take too much money away from them.

Finally, independent groups can launch their own efforts, as long as they are not coordinated with McCain's campaign or the GOP. But how are the deep-pocketed conservatives who often spearhead efforts of that sort going to feel about helping out a candidate many of them are supporting tepidly -- if at all?




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