They are a hardy bunch, these political explorers.

Dan Malloy has been out there the longest, opening an exploratory campaign for governor on Feb. 3, 2009.  After 54 weeks crisscrossing the state, is he really uncertain about his plans?

If you ask, he might give a knowing smile, but he is legally obligated to say something like, “Why, yes, I have more exploring to do.” The reason is a quirk of Connecticut’s new public financing program for candidates.

malloy, dan, file

Malloy: Still exploring

As an explorer, Malloy can legally accept donations of $375, raising money that will keep his campaign going until he qualifies for a Democratic primary. The earliest that can happen is May 22, the day of the nominating convention.

Once he declares as a candidate who intends to seek public financing, Malloy will be limited to $100 donations and must live off a budget of $250,000, which is the amount candidates must raise privately to qualify for public funds.

Ned Lamont, an independently wealthy businessman who is forgoing public financing, is the only declared candidate among Democrats. On Tuesday, he said the magic words: “No more exploring. I am running to be governor.”

But for those on a budget, specifically the $1.25 million in public funds available for a gubernatorial primary, there is a financial incentive to avoid uttering that same phrase.

So, Malloy traipses around the state, calling himself a “potential candidate for governor.” So do Rudy Marconi, Mary Glassman and Juan Figueroa, the other Democratic explorers.

“It’s awkward,” Malloy concedes.

Republican State Chairman Chris Healy filed a complaint against Malloy, alleging that the explorer slipped during a radio interview on WXLM:

Q: So there’s no question about it; you are definitely going to be a candidate for governor?

A: Well there’s precious little doubt about it.

On Thursday, the State Elections Enforcement Commission dismissed the complaint, saying that Malloy was careful enough in his answers.

His strategist, Roy Occhiogrosso, said that a legal challenge to the public financing law is another reason for candidates to continue as exploratory candidates. They may get to May and discover that the public financing is gone.

“You are not 100 percent certain under which system you are going to be raising money,” he said. “It’s awkward on any number of levels.”

Glassman, the first selectwoman of Simsbury, said she is the only candidate for whom it makes sense to still be exploring.

“I’ve only been in the race for six weeks,” she said. “For me, exploring a run makes sense.”

But she said it does limit her ability to get commitments from potential delegates.

“People are hesitant to commit,” she said. “That’s the danger of staying with an exploratory committee too long.”

Malloy has had no trouble getting endorsements, though the wording has been tortured at times.

The International Union of Operating Engineers conditionally endorsed Malloy for governor Thursday, just as the Communication Workers of America conditionally endorsed him Wednesday.

Their endorsements pledge their support “should he become an official candidate for governor.”

Until he declares, Malloy will continue to watch his words – and delight when others describe him as a candidate, as was clear during this exchange last month on WNPR’s “Where We Live.”

“He is running for governor,” host John Dankosky said to close out the show, then he caught himself. “He is exploring a run for governor. Let’s say it correctly.”

“You can say it any way you want,” Malloy said, laughing. “I have to be careful.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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