U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, the front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, is among five candidates who have told the state they may seek public funds to help finance their campaigns.
Mrs. Bentley's preliminary filing with the state election board was surprising because her campaign was believed to be well financed with private contributions -- and if she accepts state money, she could have to agree to spending limits well below the amount the leading Democrats are expected to spend.
But the Baltimore County congresswoman said yesterday that she was merely keeping her options open, and that her fund-raising has been going "very well." She said she has raised nearly $700,000 since declaring her gubernatorial candidacy in November.
Mrs. Bentley said she filed the papers in case she would decide to accept the roughly $340,000 in public funds she could add to her own money for the primary, and the nearly $1 million more she could get for the general election should she win the GOP nomination.
"We didn't want to lose the opportunity, if we decided to do it," she said.
Mrs. Bentley will have to make that decision by the deadline of 5 p.m. next Friday.
Nevertheless, her interest in public financing surprised many Republicans.
"Bentley? BENT-Ley?" asked one shocked GOP official. "Well, I am surprised. She obviously is covering her bets."
The competition did not hesitate to weigh in.
"It says to me that she's probably not raising as much money as she expected to," said Carol L. Hirschburg, campaign finance director for another GOP candidate, Maryland House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey.
Mrs. Sauerbrey, who trails Mrs. Bentley in the polls by nearly 4 to 1, already had said she would seek the matching funds. William S. Shepard, the retired foreign service officer from Montgomery County, also has filed, although he conceded recently that he may not have enough seed money by next week to qualify.
Two Democrats have notified the state election board: state Sen. Mary H. Boergers of Montgomery County and state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski of Baltimore.
To receive matching funds under Maryland's "fair campaign financing" law, state elections officials must certify that a gubernatorial candidate has raised at least $150,000 in qualifying contributions.
The contributions must be from individuals, not corporations or political action committees. Contributions of $250 or less are counted toward the total, as well as the first $250 of larger donations.
If they qualify, candidates can then tap into a $2.8 million state campaign finance fund set up in 1974 but never used until this year. Under the law, candidates can receive a $1 match for every $2 raised in qualifying donations.
Candidates who apply for the public funds must agree to limit their spending to just under $1 million for the primary election campaign and to the same limit again in the general election.
That amount is viewed as sufficient to wage a successful campaign in the GOP primary, but is far less than many observers believe Mrs. Bentley would need for the general election.
Mrs. Bentley said yesterday that a decision to take advantage of the public funds for the GOP primary would not necessarily mean that she would use them for the general election.
"It could happen," Mrs. Bentley said. "So, I'm not saying I am or I'm not. But that could happen."
Under the fair campaign financing law, candidates who qualify for the matching funds in the primary do not have to use them in the general election.
But the law also allows a candidate to take the nearly $1 million in public funds for the general election -- a major cash infusion on the day after the primary -- and still not be bound by the campaign spending limits, said Marvin L. Meyn, deputy administrator of the state elections board.
For instance, a qualifying candidate could receive the state money and yet continue private fund-raising efforts. Once the candidate exceeded the $1 million spending limit, he or she would be disqualified for the public funds and required to repay the state -- in effect getting a $1 million interest-free loan.