President Clinton has been courting independent voters and taunting Republicans with his repeated calls for political reform, but his staff is weighing a campaign tactic that could undermine the public financing of presidential elections, a policy undertaken two decades ago to lessen the role of money in politics.
Though no decision has been made, White House sources say the president's political team is thinking of turning down public campaign funds in next year's primary season in order to avoid federal spending limits.Worried about Clinton's battered popularity, his political advisers are tempted to use the fund-raising powers of the presidency to bankroll an early television advertising campaign in key states.
Raising money is rarely a problem for an incumbent president, and Democratic donors - alarmed by the GOP revolution on Capitol Hill - have responded with enthusiasm to recent fund-raising pitches by both the Clinton-Gore campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Some Clinton aides, therefore, consider the $36 million limit on primary spending and the state-by-state caps as obstacles to their reelection plans.
The notion alarms watchdog groups who view the public finance laws as vital to counter the excessive influence of special interests. The campaign finance laws were enacted in the early 1970s to reduce the influence of fat-cat contributors.
"Public financing is a system where you can run and get totally clean resources. It is a crucial post-Watergate reform," said Ann McBride, president of Common Cause.
McBride said only one major party presidential candidate - former Texas Gov. John Connally in 1980 - has done without public financing in the last two decades. He won only one delegate.
"It is essential for candidates, and particularly the president, to participate in the system. If the president chose not to participate, he would be saying he would rather take big money. It would be a terrible decision - one that would fly in the face of any kind of reform," McBride said.
But the Clinton-Gore campaign already has spent more than $2 million on television ads and is contemplating another multimillion-dollar advertising blitz for the fall.
Even though the president so far faces no Democratic opponent, his advisers are planning expensive media campaigns to boost Clinton's standing in key general election battleground states during next year's primary season.
If the Clinton campaign accepts federal funds, it would have to honor the spending caps in essential states such as California ($11 million), New York ($6.5 million) and Michigan ($3.3 million). These figures are a fraction of the amounts spent on recent Senate races in those states.
In addition to media costs are the expenses of direct mail fund-raising, campaign travel and staff, plus state-by-state organizing coordinated with national and local Democratic efforts to energize the party's voters.
Clinton's strategists see low turnout as a cause for the 1994 election debacle. With Republican governors in control - and Democrats in debt and disarray - in essential electoral states like New York and Michigan, campaign insiders say early Democratic organizing is crucial.
It all adds up to a sizable bill. If Clinton accepts federal campaign funds in next year's primaries, he must agree by law to abide by a $36 million spending limit that would last until the Democratic National Convention convenes the final week of August 1996.