Well, well, well:

The nation’s top federal election official told Sen. John McCain yesterday that he cannot immediately withdraw from the presidential public financing system as he had requested, a decision that threatens to dramatically restrict his spending until the general election campaign begins in the fall.

The prospect of being financially hamstrung by the very fundraising system he helped create is the latest in a series of bitter challenges for the presumed GOP nominee, who still faces a fractured conservative coalition as he assumes the mantle of party leadership.

The warning from the FEC campaign after McCain launched his Silky-like fund-raising appeal in the wake of the NYT attack:

Within hours of the article’s publication, McCain sought to turn it to his advantage, sending out a fundraising appeal decrying the “baseless attacks” and urging contributions. “With your immediate help today, we’ll be able to respond and defend our nominee from the liberal attack machine,” McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, said in an e-mail.

But McCain’s attempts to build up his campaign coffers before a general election contest appeared to be threatened by the stern warning yesterday from Federal Election Commission Chairman David M. Mason, a Republican. Mason notified McCain that the commission had not granted his Feb. 6 request to withdraw from the presidential public financing system.

The implications of that could be dramatic. Last year, when McCain’s campaign was starved for cash, he applied to join the financing system to gain access to millions of dollars in federal matching money. He was also permitted to use his FEC certification to bypass the time-consuming process of gathering signatures to get his name on the ballot in several states, including Ohio.

By signing up for matching money, McCain agreed to adhere to strict state-by-state spending limits and an overall limit on spending of $54 million for the primary season, which lasts until the party’s nominating convention in September. The general election has a separate public financing arrangement.

But after McCain won a series of early contests and the campaign found its financial footing, his lawyer wrote to the FEC requesting to back out of the program — which is permitted for candidates who have not yet received any federal money and who have not used the promise of federal funding as collateral for borrowing money.

The consequences:

If the FEC refuses McCain’s request to leave the system, his campaign could be bound by a potentially debilitating spending limit until he formally accepts his party’s nomination. His campaign has already spent $49 million, federal reports show. Knowingly violating the spending limit is a criminal offense that could put McCain at risk of stiff fines and up to five years in prison.

Hoisted by his own campaign finance petard.

Can’t say I’m reaching for the Kleenex.