This is an interesting development, either signaling new life for McCain's once-frontrunner campaign or the best new measure of just how desperate his White House bid really is.
Here's some background from The Politico:
John McCain on Tuesday became the first 2008 presidential candidate to qualify for taxpayer dollars for the primary election.Read the whole thing. Campaign analysts have touted a "$100 million entry fee" for the top canididates to be considered viable players by the time of the first presidential primary contests in early 2008.
McCain’s application and qualification for the funds is likely to be interpreted by opponents as a desperate move, even though it does not lock him into the public financing system.
Jill Hazelbaker, a spokeswoman for McCain, said: “This isn't a sign of desperation — it's a sign of prudence and should be interpreted as such.”
McCain has lagged behind the Republican front-runners in the polls and in fundraising. Participating in the public financing system would allow him in the coming months to get an infusion of loans by borrowing against the promise of taxpayer dollars.
But the system is a trade-off, since it would also cap at about $50 million the amount of cash his campaign can spend during the primary — a limitation that would go into effect immediately.
The leading contenders for the nomination will likely quickly eclipse that level of spending, potentially putting McCain at a distinct disadvantage in early states.
There's a bitter irony here for McCain: The ability of both George Bush and John Kerry to each raise more than $250 million in the primaries in the 2004 presidential election is a direct consequence of the new fundraising regime arising out of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation. Now McCain finds himself unable to match that level of money power himself, and he'll be relegated to utlilizing a public funding system he himself made impotent.
Top-tier candiates nowadays forego public "matching funds" for the primaries because with individual contribution limits now at $2000 per person it's easily possible to raise and spend way more money than would be permitted under the federal spending caps. If McCain takes public funding, he'll be limited to $21 million dollars at the start of the primaries (as reported by The Politico), likely to be a dramatically lower figure than his top rivals for the nomination.
Also, the top candidates this year have indicated that they won't take public money even in the general election campaign, an unprecedented development. The way things are going, McCain, ever the political reform maverick, won't be among them. The Arizona Senator's best days as a top White House prospect were back in 2000, when the rules of the campaign game were different, and more ameniable to his come-from-behind insurgent style.