When Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., launched his presidential bid in January, he all but shut down his Hopefund, the political-action committee...

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WASHINGTON — When Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., launched his presidential bid in January, he all but shut down his Hopefund, the political-action committee he had used to raise millions for fellow Democrats. But in recent months, Obama has handed out more than $180,000 from the PAC to local Democratic groups and candidates in the key early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, campaign reports show.

Some are state and local politicians who have recently endorsed Obama’s campaign. Obama’s PAC reported giving a $1,000 contribution, for instance, to New Hampshire state Sen. Jacalyn Cilley on July 25, six days before she announced she was endorsing him.

And state Rep. J. Todd Rutherford, a lawmaker from South Carolina, received a $1,000 contribution from Obama’s PAC on Sept. 24, a few months after endorsing Obama.

Cilley, who has traveled with Obama around New Hampshire and serves on the campaign’s steering committee, said that she decided to endorse him before getting the donation.

“There were no negotiations about financial remuneration. No quid pro quo,” she said.

Obama stopped raising money for the PAC as soon as he launched his presidential bid, and there was little donation activity during the first half of the year. But contributions flowing from Hopefund picked up in the past few months, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

Obama spokesman Joshua Earnest said there was no connection between the PAC’s giving and Obama’s presidential aspirations. “Senator Obama long has been doing whatever he can to help elect fellow Democrats all across the country,” Earnest said.

Fundraising vehicles known as leadership PACs can raise money in much larger chunks than candidates can for their own campaigns. Watchdog groups have argued that they allow candidates to skirt campaign contribution and donation limits.

Scott Thomas, a Democrat and a former FEC chairman, said “there’s probably no doubt” the PAC donations were aimed at increasing support for Obama’s presidential race.

Kent Cooper, the FEC’s retired chief of public disclosure, said the panel, if it chose, could declare Obama’s presidential campaign and PAC were “affiliated,” meaning some activities involving the PAC could be declared in-kind contributions to the presidential campaign that would exceed donation limits.

“At this stage of the race, for a presidential candidate, it is a brazen effort to use every avenue to influence an election,” Cooper said. “I can’t believe the Obama people can keep a straight face and claim these aren’t part of the presidential race.”

The bulk of donations from Obama’s PAC to state and local candidates this year went to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

In addition, there were more than $60,000 in donations to national candidates in those same states, including $9,000 for Rep. Paul Hodes, the first member of Congress from New Hampshire to endorse Obama earlier this year.

In addition to donating to individuals, Hopefund gave to several key Democratic groups in the battleground states, including $30,000 each to the Iowa House Truman Fund and the Iowa Senate Majority Fund and $15,000 to New Hampshire’s Friends of a Democratic Senate.