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Kerry opts out of public financing in primaries

Democrats' money war escalates

Sen. John Kerry speaks to reporters in Des Moines, Iowa on Friday after visiting a work site.
Sen. John Kerry speaks to reporters in Des Moines, Iowa on Friday after visiting a work site.

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(CNN) -- The money war among Democratic presidential candidates escalated Friday, as Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts joined rival Howard Dean in eschewing public financing, vowing not to "fight with one hand tied behind my back."

"The decision that I am making now is based on the seriousness of this race and the importance of beating George Bush," Kerry said at a news conference in Des Moines, Iowa.

"I wish that Howard Dean had kept his promise to take federal matching money. But he did not. He changed the rules of this race, and anyone with a real shot at the nomination is going to have to play by those rules."

However, another Democratic contender who had been considering giving up federal matching funds, Wesley Clark, has decided to stay in the public system, campaign spokesman Matt Bennett said Friday.

In announcing that he would give up matching funds, Kerry said he would not spend more than $45 million on his campaign until the time the Democratic nominee is effectively chosen, and he challenged Dean to do the same.

"I ask Governor Dean to join that pledge so that he can show America that his decision is not a decision based on trying to get an advantage against his opponents in the primaries, but it is truly an effort to try to deal with the money that President Bush will have," Kerry said.

Presidential candidates who accept federal matching funds can spend no more than $45 million during the primary season, which lasts up to the Democratic National Convention in July.

Under Kerry's pledge, the monetary cap would apply to the candidates until it is clear who the nominee will be, which could happen as early as March with the front-loaded campaign calendar.

That would leave the winner free to spend money above the $45 million cap between March and July, to better compete with Bush, who has opted out of the public finance system and is expected to raise $170 million to $200 million.

Last Saturday, in announcing he was giving up matching funds, Dean said he was taking that step to better compete with Bush's war chest in the period between the primaries and the party nominating conventions.

After the conventions, both the Republicans and Democrats will get an equal amount of money to run their general election campaigns.

Dean's campaign was non-committal, but also not enthusiastic, about accepting Kerry's pledge.

"We are a long way from making a decision on spending $45 million," said Dean spokesperson Jay Carson. "There is no clear defining line between when the primaries end and the campaign begins. Bush could start advertising right away."

Now that they have given up matching funds, Kerry and Dean will also be able to break caps on spending in Iowa and New Hampshire, home to the first two major contests of the nominating season.

Kerry's decision also brings up the possibility that he could pump money from his own considerable fortune into the race.

The senator's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, is an heir to the Heinz food products fortune. Forbes Magazine, which put her on its list of the richest Americans, placed her worth at $550 million in 2002.

Candidate contributions

Candidates are allowed to use unlimited amounts of their own money in campaigns. However, under federal campaign laws, Kerry can only use assets he owns outright and half of the value of assets owned jointly with his wife.

Kerry's most recent Senate financial disclosure report puts his solo assets and the couple's joint assets at less than $2.4 million. However, the report may not provide a complete picture of his wealth because the value of non-investment property does not have to be disclosed, and investments are only disclosed in broad categories.

Friday in Des Moines, Kerry said he would use his personal wealth for his campaign "if I need to," but he said he would abide by restrictions on what assets he can tap.

He also wouldn't rule out the possibility of arranging a loan for the campaign.

"I don't know what I'll put in, because it depends on what people do in responding to this campaign, but I'm not going to fight with one hand tied behind my back. I don't believe in unilateral disarmament," he said.

A Kerry campaign aide said, "He wouldn't be doing this if he wasn't willing and able to spend enough money to go over the amount he would have received in public financing."

As of September 30, Dean had raised $25.4 million for his campaign, with Kerry in second place with $20 million. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina was in third place in the money chase at $14.5 million, followed by Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, $13.7 million; Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, $11.8 million; Clark, $3.5 million; and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, $3.4 million.

But those Democratic money totals paled in comparison to Bush, whose campaign had raised $85.2 million by the end of September. The president has no primary opponent, leaving him free to open the spigots to take aim at Democrats until the GOP convention in early September.

--CNN Correspondent Jonathan Karl, Political Assignment Manager Adam Levine and Political Researcher Robert Yoon contributed to this report.

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