Urgent deadline!

“Your support by Thursday at midnight is absolutely vital,” the Obama campaign’s pitch for a donation cried out from the e-mail that popped into my in-box Tuesday. “Your first donation of $10 or more will provide resources urgently needed before the deadline. And you’ll receive a limited edition Obama-Biden car magnet.”

Not that I wouldn’t want to own something that’s a limited edition. But I’ll pass on that magnet. I’ll even yawn at the hyperbole since it’s just campaign rhetoric.

But really, who can feel the fierce urgency of now for a candidate who has already broken every fundraising record, and who is outspending his opponent in some states by as much as 4-to-1?

After the eye-popping fundraising revelations of the past couple of days, the need that’s far more pronounced is the imperative of acting quickly after November’s election to restore some common sense to the presidential campaign finance system — before we don’t have any system at all.

Not that the restrictions are working now. Democrat Barack Obama became the first candidate to opt out of the Watergate-era rules that financed presidential general election campaigns with an allocation of public funds to each major-party nominee. The staggering sums he has raised and the saturation spending he’s now engaged in are tributes to his fundraising prowess.

But they are also the tombstones for a system that has served the nation fairly well for more than three decades.

Republican John McCain accepted $84 million in public funds, which amounts to an automatic limit on both his fundraising and his spending. Obama raised nearly twice that amount — $150 million — in September alone. The Democrat’s spending in September was $87.5 million. That one-month sum outstrips the total allocated under the public system that nominees are meant to use from the time of their late-summer conventions through Election Day.

The Obama campaign portrays its fundraising operation as a miracle of grass-roots enthusiasm, dominated by small donors who might give $10 or so and receive a car magnet. It’s true that Obama has built the best small-donor operation ever. This is a tangible sign of the breadth of his appeal.

But it’s also true that small contributions are only part of the story — possibly a small part. The Washington Post has reported that only a quarter of the roughly $600 million Obama has raised over the course of the campaign has come from donors who gave $200 or less. The rest of Obama’s money comes from the same high-end donors who’ve always played a disproportionate role in campaign fundraising. And both Obama and McCain are taking advantage of a loophole that allows their biggest contributors to give as much as $70,100 in combined contributions to their campaigns, to national and state parties and to various other campaign entities. Drawing on an analysis by Public Citizen, The New York Times reported that McCain has received donations of $25,000 or more from 1,800 people. Obama has received $25,000 or more from about 2,000 donors.

So who will have the new president’s ear — the person who pointed and clicked his way to a $5 donation, or the donor who polished the jewels for the $25,000 fundraising gala?

For all their inadequacies, campaign-finance laws are meant to accomplish several goals. Yes, they force disclosure of donor names and limit the size of checks. But they are also meant to level the playing field by keeping billionaires from dipping into their own wealth to buy an election — or keeping a candidate who opts out of the public-financing system from racking up a lopsided money advantage of the sort Obama now enjoys.

Obama seems to have once understood this. Last December, he became an original co-sponsor of legislation by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., that would have fixed the presidential campaign financing system by boosting the sums the two nominees receive. The measure also calls for doubling public funds for a candidate who stays within the system — but who faces an opponent who has opted out and gained a daunting financial advantage. In other words, Sen. Obama supported a measure that would curtail or eliminate the very advantage that candidate Obama now exploits.

Does he still support the Feingold plan? Obama’s campaign says he can’t fix a crumbling system by “embracing it in its broken state.” Once he’s president, spokesman Nick Shapiro says, he’ll keep his commitment.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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