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Dean to let supporters decide whether to abandon public financing

Dean makes a point during Tuesday night's Rock the Vote forum in Boston.
Dean makes a point during Tuesday night's Rock the Vote forum in Boston.

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• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
Howard Dean
Fund Raising
Democratic Party
America Votes 2004

(CNN) -- Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean will let his campaign supporters decide whether he should forgo public financing to better match President Bush's hefty war chest.

In a message posted on his Web site Tuesday, the former Vermont governor said his campaign will contact some 600,000 supporters this week, most by e-mail, asking them to vote on whether he should opt in or out of the public financing system. The results will be announced on Saturday.

Dean said federal limits will cap spending for his primary campaign at $45 million, leaving his campaign with "no way to defend ourselves" against Bush between the end of the primary season and the Democratic convention in July.

In 2000, Bush opted out of the system, and he is not accepting federal matching funds for the primary campaign in his re-election effort. The president is expected to raise $170 million to $200 million, giving him a substantial advantage over candidates who accept the matching funds.

Earlier in the campaign, Dean had vowed to stay in the public finance system, which no Democrat has abandoned since it was created in the wake of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.

"I have always been committed to public financing. But the federal matching funds law, though it was meant to provide an incentive for ordinary Americans to participate in the funding of our elections, is doing the opposite of what it intended," Dean said.

"It could end up punishing a movement that has raised more from ordinary Americans that any campaign in history, while rewarding the campaign that has blatantly abused both the spirit and intent of campaign finance, selling off piece after piece of our country."

At the end of September, Dean had raised $25.4 million, more than any of his Democratic rivals but well behind Bush's $85.2 million. Much of Dean's money has been raised in small contributions over the Internet from people who will now be asked to decide whether to stay in the public system.

"This decision is no longer mine to make. This is a campaign of the people, by the people and for the people. Your successful effort of raising a historic amount of money through small contributions has made this choice possible," he said. "This is why I am putting this decision in your hands."

Dean told his supporters that opting out of the system will cost the campaign almost $19 million in federal matching funds.

"Declining federal money and funding a campaign with grassroots support has never been done before, and if you choose this option, it will be a challenge," he said.

The federal campaign financing system matches contributions raised by candidates with money from a fund financed by a $3 contribution that taxpayers can check off on their income tax returns. In return for the federal money, candidates have to agree to spending limits.

If Dean forgoes matching funds, other Democrats may follow suit, including multimillionaire Sen. John Kerry of New Hampshire.

The decision could also have political consequences. Democrats have supported campaign finance reform, and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, one of Dean's rivals, said Tuesday that candidates who don't stay in the public system are undermining it.

"If any of us decide to play outside the public financing system this year, it will directly contradict our ability to legitimately advocate for additional reforms of this system in the future," Gephardt said in a statement.

After the party conventions next year, the Democratic and Republican nominees will receive an equal stipend for the general election campaign from the federal campaign fund. Bush is not expected to forgo that money.

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