During a private fundraiser last month, Sen. Barack Obama said he was "considering" voluntarily restricting the amount of money he could raise in a general election from campaign donors.
"We need to separate money from political influence. It's an experiment in open source politics," Obama told a crowd of supporters in Silicon Valley. "One thing that I am considering, and my advisers might not like this: I may limit campaign contribution amounts per person to less than the federal limit in the general election."
The remark, which was shared with The Huffington Post by an event attendee and not disputed by the Obama campaign, is the first public indication that Obama is willing to forgo some of his massive financial advantages if he were to face off against John McCain in the fall. The current federal cap on individual general election donations is $2300.
It is a trailblazing move that could give him political leeway to forgo public funds, as well as one that could serve as a starting point for reaching a fundraising compromise with McCain. But, if pursued, it will fall short of what some reform groups are hoping for from each of the party's standard bearers.
"I still believe Obama ought to lead the way and take public funding for these elections," said Joan Claybrook, president of the good-government group Public Citizen. "What he is saying here is that he is going to do something to try and walk down the middle. But it is not really walking down the middle. In the general, you either take it or you don't take it."
For weeks, Obama and McCain have battled each other over an alleged pledge made early in the campaign for Obama to pursue public financing in a general election. McCain, whose campaign financing woes pose a serious threat to his electoral hopes, has stressed that the pledge was concrete. Obama has countered that his pledge was conditioned on reaching an agreement with the GOP nominee, and that the very nature of his fundraising apparatus -- 1.5 million donors giving relatively small amounts -- constitutes a public financing system.
The Illinois Democrat has not dismissed the option of reaching a compromise with McCain. And this floated idea of restricting donations could serve as the first step towards achieving that common ground.
Good government groups, by and large, view Obama as committed to reforming the predominance of money in politics. And Obama, in his appearance at this fundraiser, stressed that this was his ultimate goal, noting that the system by which he has been successful effectively undercuts moneyed-interests.
"We have not seen before," Obama said. "It takes power away from PACs, from lobbyists. It takes power away also from institutional players. Endorsements from a governor might not mean as much as it once did. Endorsements from some of the traditional institutional players, even those that are part of the Democratic Party, may not mean as much. That is actually a healthy thing."
However, political watchdog groups stressed that while Obama's ability to build a large coalition of small donors was an important breakthrough, it was not a viable substitute for more comprehensive reform.
"There is something to be said to the notion that having a whole lot of small donors is less corrupting than a few really big donors," said Josh Israel, senior researcher for the Center for Public Integrity's Buying of the President. "But the idea of having a public financing system is that you have a level playing field. And unless he raises that money in even amounts for himself and Sen. McCain and perhaps the other candidates who are running, then you are not going to have a level playing field and money is going to be a major factor."
No major party candidate has opted to run the general election on his own fundraising prowess since the public financing system was implemented in the 1970s. Under the federal campaign finance system, a presidential candidate can, after he is officially the nominee, become eligible for $85 million from a fund provided by taxpayers. That candidate, however, would be barred from raising additional money.
With the proliferation of outside groups and 527s, there is a concern, especially from the Obama campaign, that by relying only on public funds, a candidate could face obstacles matching opposition spending dime-for-dime. A basis for a McCain-Obama compromise on fundraising would center on somehow restricting those 527s, a task complicated by the fact that candidates are legally prohibited from coordinating with outside groups. That, political observers say, raises a major hurdle for Obama to reach a deal.
Complicating the issue, to a certain extent, is McCain's decision during the Republican primary to use the prospect of accepting matching funds as a way of securing a $1 million bank loan. Critics say it was an abuse of the public financing system and raises doubts about the Arizona Republican's commitment to reform.
"The tricky thing is there is a trust thing," said Dave Donnelly, national campaign director at Public Campaign Action Fund. "McCain opted into the public financing system in the primary and then opted out, then has slammed Obama across the country for this pledge he signed. But Obama never signed a piece of paper saying he would be punished for violating his agreement. That's what McCain has signed and he has gotten a free ride on it... The bottom line is, America needs a reformer in the White House and Obama has proven he will be a reformer by the legislation he's sponsored and his record on the issue. And McCain has clearly backtracked."