DAYTON, Ohio — If Sen. Barack Obama becomes the Democratic nominee, he faces a financial dilemma: Use his vaunted fundraising operation for the general election or limit himself by accepting public funds.
Last year, Obama indicated he would accept public funds if his Republican opponent did as well. On Thursday, however, his spokesman hedged, and campaign finance watchdog groups are ready to pounce.
Based on past statements, Obama and Republican presidential candidate John McCain have indicated that if each was nominated, a spending and fundraising armistice was possible.
"If Senator Obama is the nominee, he will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said last March. Obama affirmed the position in a questionnaire last November.
Similarly, then McCain campaign manager Terry Nelson said at the time: "Should John McCain win the Republican nomination, we will agree to accept public financing in the general election if the Democratic nominee agrees to do the same."
Those conditional commitments came after Obama asked the Federal Election Commission whether he could raise general election money during 2007 but return it if he chose to accept the public funds.
The issue resurfaced this month when McCain emerged as the likely Republican nominee and as Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton jostled for the lead in the Democratic contest.
McCain advisers have said in recent days that he would abide by his proposal.
But on Thursday, Burton said any speculation about what Obama will do is premature.
"This is a question we will focus on directly if he is the nominee," he said. "It was something that we pursued with the FEC and it was an option that we wanted on the table and is on the table."
Asked if the campaign's earlier position amounted to a pledge, Burton said: "No, there is no pledge."
McCain said he thought he and Obama had agreed on the issue.
"We had an agreement, as I recall, months ago that if he were the candidate and I were the candidate we would both accept public funding for the general election. That still holds," McCain told reporters on his campaign plane. "I didn't know of any resistance."
Fred Wertheimer, president of the advocacy group Democracy 21, said he and others who want to curtail the role of money in politics intend to step up their pressure on Obama to accept public money if he is the Democratic nominee.
"We expect Senator Obama to meet the public commitment he made and to agree to use public financing in the general election if he is nominated and his major party opponent agrees to do the same," Wertheimer said.
In response to a questionnaire in November from the Midwest Democracy Network, a group of nonpartisan government oversight groups, Obama said: "Senator John McCain has already pledged to accept this fundraising pledge. If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election."
Candidates who accept public funds would be eligible for about $85 million in public money. The funds come from a presidential financing program paid for with a $3 checkoff on tax returns.
While presidential candidates have rejected public financing in primaries, no major party candidate has bypassed the system in the general election since the program was created in the wake of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.
This time, however, McCain, Obama and Clinton have raised money for the general election. Clinton has raised the most, $19.5 million, and has made no commitment to take public financing.
Obama has raised $6.1 million and McCain has raised $2.2 million for the general. If they take public funds, they would have to return the money they raised.
If McCain and Obama agree to take the federal money and forgo fundraising, McCain would be a clear beneficiary since Obama has proven himself as a multimillion-dollar fundraiser. His campaign raised a whopping $32 million for the primary in January alone.
Still, the national parties and outside groups are also gearing up to play a role in the fall campaign.
Associated Press Writer Liz Sidoti contributed to this report.