Reporters got the news by E-mail just before they sat down this morning for breakfast with Sen. Barack Obama's communications director, Robert Gibbs, and his lawyer, Robert Bauer: The presumed Democratic nominee had announced in a video to supporters that he would opt out of the 32-year-old public campaign financing system.
As reporters gathered at Washington's St. Regis Hotel were quick to point out, that would make Obama the first presidential candidate since Republican Richard Nixon to raise unlimited private funds for his race. And it represents a 180-degree pivot from his earlier pledge to participate in the public system if his opponent does the same.
Gibbs and Bauer were girded for the peppering they were about to receive: Is Obama's stated support of public campaign financing authentic? Did fear of being Swift Boated lead to the decision? Does this give his opponent an opening to criticize him for hypocrisy? (That last question, says our Liz Halloran, who was at the breakfast, was immediately answered by McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker, who E-mailed a statement before the morning pastries were finished calling Obama a "typical politician who will do and say whatever is most expedient for Barack Obama.")
Gibbs and Bauer acknowledged that Obama didn't meet his pledge to get together with his opponent to discuss a public financing agreement -- Bauer says a recent conversation he had with McCain lawyer Trevor Potter made it "clear" there was "no basis for further discussion." And, after they repeatedly accused McCain of "gaming" the campaign finance system, they had to respond to questions about their own gamesmanship.
Expected GOP nominee John McCain, who has struggled to fill his coffers, has indicated that he will accept public financing. That would limit his spending in the general election to $84.1 million in public funds, and he's also expected to rely heavily on the deep-pocketed Republican National Committee for campaign help. (Some stark numbers for McCain: Obama has raised $265 million and has $46 million on hand; McCain has raised $96 million and has $26 million on hand.)
Their defense for opting out? The campaign finance system is broken and needs to be fixed. McCain has already misused it during the primary system. There will be massive spending by unregulated 527 organizations. And Obama doesn't want to get caught without resources to respond, like Democratic nominee John Kerry in 2004, when the Swift Boat attacks were launched.
But, bottom line, the Obama camp believes that its reliance on small donors for its historic fundraising success is itself reforming the financing of campaigns. More than 90 percent of Obama's donors, Gibbs says, gave $100 or less, and the campaign doesn't accept money from lobbyists. "Campaign finance reform," Gibbs says, "is taking place in our campaign."