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Associated Press
July 9, 1998

WASHINGTON -- So few Americans are checking the $3 campaign-financing box on their income-tax forms that presidential candidates in the year 2000 probably will have to fight the primary battles without all of the federal money they would be entitled to receive.

The Federal Election Commission is warning that some unsuccessful primary candidates may not get their full shares of federal matching funds until after the November 2000 elections, well after they have been ousted from contention.

"Eventually the money would be there," FEC spokeswoman Sharon Snyder said. "However, the funds may be made available so late as to preclude the candidates from being able to use them effectively."

It's the latest setback for a system set up after Watergate to provide partial taxpayer financing to presidential hopefuls in exchange for the candidates agreeing to strict primary spending limits. Its goal was to limit the influence of wealthy donors.

The main problem is that each year fewer taxpayers are earmarking $3 of their taxes for the presidential campaign fund that provides the matching money for candidates.

Under the law, the government matches dollar for dollar the first $250 of each individual contribution a qualified presidential primary candidate receives. In addition, the government provides each of the two major parties' nominees full financing for the general election.

Only 13 percent of taxpayers checked off the box in 1996, the last year for which figures were available, according to the Internal Revenue Service. That was down from the year before and well below the high of 29 percent in 1978.

Analysts see the decline as part of overall voter apathy and disdain.

"It's a general feeling of, `Why should I encourage them?' " said Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "It's also reflected in low voter turnout."

The fund was drained by the 1996 election and is not being replenished quick enough for 2000.

The FEC projects it will have enough money to pay the candidates only around 40 percent of the money they would be entitled to Jan. 1, 2000, and won't be able to cover the full amounts until after the general election.

In 1996, a similar shortfall meant that the presidential candidates received 60 percent of their money Jan. 1 and the rest by April when taxpayers filed their returns.

As the presidential fund is replenished, the FEC must first siphon off the money to pay a legally required allotment to the two national parties to cover their convention costs. The conventions are expected to get $13 million apiece.

The agency also sets aside the amounts required for the two parties' general election candidates. In 2000, the two nominees are expected to get $68 million each.

Only then can the FEC begin making payments to the Democratic and Republican primary candidates. The 2000 field is expected to be large because there will be no incumbent president seeking re-election.

So will candidates just abandon the public financing and the spending limits that go with it?

Probably not, said Republican consultant Stan Huckaby. He predicted candidates will borrow money from banks and wait for the government to ante up, choosing 10 percent interest payments over the effort it takes to raise money.

Candice Nelson, an associate professor of political science at American University in Washington, said the shortfall will push candidates to raise more money early.

It also may provide an advantage to wealthy potential candidates, such as publisher Steve Forbes, who can finance their campaigns.

Forbes did so in 1996.

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