And it has nothing to do with a lobbyist named Vicki...  

It has to do with this campaign loan story. Basically, McCain secured two loans totaling about $4 million last fall, apparently using as collateral the federal matching funds he'd receive if he opted to into the public campaign-finance system. But simply by using potential public money as collateral, McCain effectively did opt into the system. That means he effectively agreed to cap his campaign spending at $54 million prior to the GOP convention in September. Alas, McCain had spent $49 million as of January 31. So we're looking at more or less zero permissible spending between now and September. (Since he's surely spent $5 million since January.)

In his defense, McCain's lawyers argue that it wasn't potential public money that they used as collateral; it was McCain's overall fundraising potential. Which is--how to put this?--not exactly straight talk. Take it away, Washington Post:

[McCain lawyer Trevor] Potter said the campaign offered as collateral its assets, including McCain's massive fundraising lists and his willingness to keep raising from them. But that may not satisfy the FEC, which requires that politicians borrow using only terms that assure repayment.

"If the bank is saying they lent him money on the basis of future receipts, well, in presidential campaigns, their future receipts can be zero or millions," said Marc Elias, an election lawyer who arranged a loan in 2003 for the presidential bid of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). "The idea that this would be a dependable source of collateral is preposterous."

Agreed. Losing presidential campaigns--the scenario that would have brought the collateral into play--aren't exactly known for their fundraising potential. In fact, there's a bit of a catch-22 here: If McCain's fundraising lists were worth something, he wouldn't have needed a loan. (At least not a big one.) And if they weren't worth anything, he'd have needed the loan, but the lists wouldn't have worked as collateral. I'm not sure how you square that circle.

Bottom line: Either McCain used the promise of public campaign funds as collateral for his loan, in which case he's locked himself into the public campaign finance system (and its strict spending limits) and is massively screwed until September. Or he didn't use potential public funds as collateral, which means he didn't have anything to offer as collateral, which means he received an improper loan. Neither one of those scenarios is very good for the Straight Talk Express.

--Noam Scheiber