Republican John McCain, his presidential campaign trying to climb out of dire financial straits, is eligible to receive public financing for his struggling bid, the Federal Election Commission said Tuesday.
The Arizona senator quietly requested authority to receive matching funds on Aug. 10, but his campaign said he has not decided whether he would ultimately accept the money. Doing so would put him at a major disadvantage against well-funded rivals Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, who are likely to forgo public financing and, thus, free themselves from spending limits.
''We have not made a final decision, but we are doing what's necessary should we decide to opt into the matching fund system,'' McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said.
The FEC decision merely means that McCain has met the requirements to receive some amount of money. He is the first 2008 presidential candidate to be declared eligible to receive matching funds.
Should McCain take the cash, it would mark a major strategic shift for a candidate who for months believed he wouldn't need public money. Early this year, the one-time presumptive front-runner for the GOP nomination set out to raise $100 million or more this year and crafted a budget based on that assumption.
But the money didn't come in as expected and campaign spending was exorbitant. In the first six months of the year, the Arizona senator blew through some $22 million of $25 million raised, a figure that didn't include outstanding debt. All but broke by July, McCain's campaign said it was seriously considering taking public matching funds and estimated that he could be eligible to receive about $6 million.
Accepting public money could tie McCain's hands by limiting the total amount he can spend in individual states.
In the aftermath of the disclosure of his dismal finances, McCain overhauled his once unrivaled national campaign, laying off dozens of staffers, installing new leadership and refocusing strategy on three states, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Since then, speculation has been rampant that McCain was maneuvering to simply collect public matching funds to retire his debt, and then would bow out of the race.
Hazelbaker flatly denied that notion: ''Absolutely not.''
This month, McCain has dramatically scaled back spending and has continued to raise money. He has brought on several prominent Republicans to help with his finance operation, most recently naming former Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher as a general campaign chairman.
McCain faces an uphill fight as he seeks a comeback over Giuliani, who has made millions in the years since he left the New York mayoral post, and Romney, the wealthiest candidate in the field who already has poured $9 million into his bid. Romney and Giuliani lead the GOP pack in first- and second-quarter fundraising. McCain came in third, raising just $13.6 million in the first quarter and $11.2 million in the second quarter.
Under federal election law, a candidate is qualified to receive public money if they prove they have raised a total of $5,000 in each of 20 states, with contributions of $250 or less from individual people. The FEC said McCain met that threshold, and also agreed, in line with the requirements, to abide by an overall spending total as well as limits in each state.
Once candidates are declared eligible, they can submit more proof of contributions to accrue more matching funds each month. The maximum amount a candidate could receive is currently estimated to be about $21 million.
No payments are made until January 2008.
The FEC said that in the 2004 race, Democrat Howard Dean requested eligibility but did not end up accepting the money; Republican Elizabeth Dole did the same in the contest four years earlier.
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