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Don't Starve Presidential Hopefuls

THE presidential-primary calendar is front-end loaded. In an election year the nominating process extends from February to midsummer. For most candidates, though, the make-or-break period lasts only about a month. By mid-March, after the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary, and the dozen or so contests on Super Tuesday, the field for each party has been narrowed to the two or three strongest hopefuls. If ``strongest'' is to mean something other than ``best financed,'' dark-horse candidates must have access to federal matching funds when they leave the gate. That's one of the reasons to be concerned about a Treasury proposal that could drastically reduce federal campaign funds available to presidential candidates during the 1992 primaries.

The problem is that when the year starts, the campaign-finance fund won't have enough money both for the general election and for all candidates in the primaries. The money comes from the $1 contributions that taxpayers can voluntarily deduct from their federal income taxes. The percentage of taxpayers contributing to the fund has declined, however, while matching-fund commitments, indexed for inflation, have increased.

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Treasury's solution is to set aside $111 million for the general election, leaving only about $14 million to spread among the primary candidates, who are expected to qualify for more than $50 million in matching funds. Some candidates might find the federal assistance so paltry that they will opt out of the program and seek unlimited donations from special interests. That's what the matching-fund plan - which puts a cap on campaign expenditures in return for federal help - is intended to get away from.

Rather than allocate matching funds strictly from the money at hand on Jan. 1, Treasury should advance to candidates additional money that will be received from taxpayers during the year. The Federal Election Commission argues for such a procedure.

Meanwhile, as taxpayers prepare their returns this year, it's to be hoped that more than one in five will give $1 to keep a lid on special-interest money in presidential politics.

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