WASHINGTON—Democrat Barack Obama said on Thursday he would forego public financing of his general election campaign against Republican John McCain, reversing an earlier stance and positioning himself to outspend McCain in the White House race.
Obama said in a video message to supporters he would refuse $84 million in public funds available for the November general election. He is the first U.S. presidential candidate to bypass the system since it was created after the Watergate scandal in the mid-1970s.
His decision drew immediate condemnation from the McCain campaign, which has signaled so far he would participate in the system.
The move had been widely expected given Obama's record-smashing fundraising during the Democratic nominating battle. If Obama had taken the public funds, he would have been limited to spending just the $84 million in the two months between the Democratic convention and the Nov. 4 election.
Obama's decision sets up what will be the most expensive presidential election in U.S. history. He had said earlier he would take public funds if his Republican opponent would as well.
"It's not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections," Obama said in the video message.
"But the public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken and we face opponents who've become masters at gaming this broken system," he said.
McCain has not made a formal announcement on whether he will take the public funds, but the Arizona senator raised far less than Obama during the primary battle.
"Today, Barack Obama has revealed himself to be just another typical politician who will do and say whatever is most expedient for Barack Obama," McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said in a statement.
"The true test of a candidate for president is whether he will stand on principle and keep his word to the American people. Barack Obama has failed that test today, and his reversal of his promise to participate in the public finance system undermines his call for a new type of politics," she said.
Obama built a formidable grass-roots financial machine during his primary battle against Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, raising more than $265 million from more than 1.5 million donors, many of whom gave in small increments.
McCain raised $96 million so far during the primary season.
Obama said McCain's campaign and the Republican National Committee were fueled by contributions from Washington lobbyists and special interest groups that can make unlimited donations.
"From the very beginning of this campaign, I have asked my supporters to avoid that kind of unregulated activity and join us in building a new kind of politics—and you have," he said in the video message.
"Instead of forcing us to rely on millions from Washington lobbyists and special interest (groups), you've fueled this campaign with donations of $5, $10, $20, whatever you can afford," he said.
"And because you did, we've built a grass-roots movement of over 1.5 million Americans."
The public funds are paid for by taxpayers who check off a box on their tax returns allowing a $3 contribution to the fund.
The decision by Obama, an Illinois senator, to forego the funds in the general election drew criticism from public interest groups as well as McCain.
"If he thinks the system is broken then he needs to be pledging to fix it," said David Arkush, a director at the public interest group Public Citizen, which champions publicly financed elections.
Obama and Clinton opted out of the public financing system during their primary battle, launching a money war that fueled new records and heavy spending during the campaign.