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Keep the 'Checkoff'

PUBLIC financing of United States presidential campaigns was not just a liberal whim in the wake of Watergate. It was an important reform designed to lessen the influence of monied interests on federal elections.

The system may have its flaws, such as ''soft money'' openings through which dollars in excess of the legal limits find their way to candidates via party organizations. Some fine-tuning of the current law may be in order.

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But Republicans in the Senate are determined to do away with the whole structure of public financing. They argue, first, that such a move is needed to respond to the balanced-budget imperative. Axing the present funding system, as called for in the Senate budget plan, might save between $100 million and $300 million, they say.

Republicans also argue that government should get out of the campaign-funding business for philosophical reasons: It simply has no business being there.

Both these arguments have holes. Getting rid of public funding for presidential campaigns might save a relatively few taxpayer dollars, but these are dollars taxpayers themselves have set aside. Citizens check the appropriate box on their tax return. This voluntary disbursement of money is hardly a drain on the public treasury.

More important, those who want $3 of their tax obligation used this way probably feel that it's a small price to pay for an electoral system a little less tainted by huge flows of private money.

Presidential candidates who take public funds can spend only up to a certain limit, probably around $60 million in the 1996 general election. Independent candidates, or those back in the partisan pack, are given the hope, at least, of getting a share of public matching funds for the primary campaigns and thus making their voices heard.

Without public funding, and the limits it imposes, spending for presidential campaigns could zoom.

That prospect doesn't bother some Republicans, who are on the upswing and have deep private coffers in any case. Their assertion that government has no business in politics is a bit self-serving. And the chief GOP contenders for '96, such as Senators Dole and Gramm, are happy to take the public funds. The proposed end to public funding wouldn't come until the year 2000.

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Public funding can't erase the political influence of money, but it creates some boundaries. Erasing them would invite even more public cynicism -- something all candidates should want to prevent.

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