updated 2/9/2007 2:03:40 PM ET 2007-02-09T19:03:40

In one month, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney brought in a hefty $1.4 million-plus from donors to his Web site.

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In one day, he secured a jaw-dropping $6.5 million in contributions and pledges from others—and he still has at least a dozen fundraisers planned and nearly two more months to raise cash online and elsewhere before March 31.

That’s the end of the first financial quarter of 2007 — and the first big test of who is a viable White House candidate.

The deadline is prompting Republican and Democratic contenders alike to focus heavily on raking in cash in the first few months of the year as they seek to generate a sense of momentum for their candidacies and ensure they have enough money to be competitive in next year’s nominating contests.

“There’s more pressure than ever before to raise money early,” said Anthony Corrado of Colby College in Maine, who specializes in presidential elections and campaign finance.

So, such top-tier candidates as Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton are working to make good on the widely held belief that they can raise $80 million to $100 million this year alone.

Heading toward the ‘money primary’
Other leading candidates—Romney and Rudy Giuliani on the right, and Sen. Barack Obama and John Edwards on the left—are out to prove they can compete with the big dogs by posting equally large numbers. And, long-shot candidates are trying to show they are relevant, too.

“Meeting expectations may matter as much as raw numbers,” said Bradley Smith, a former Federal Election Commission chairman who now teaches at Capital University in Ohio.

In what political operatives call the “money primary,” candidates are courting marquee donors, hosting high-priced galas, e-mailing pitches to grass-roots supporters and driving backers to their Web sites to build a solid campaign fund.

On the Republican side, the serious candidates wasted no time in trying to nab as many of President Bush’s chief donors—called Rangers and Pioneers—as they could. Democrats, for their part, have fought over loyal, left-flank donors in the liberal bastions of Hollywood and New York.

Aside from Romney, of the other top-tier candidates:

  • McCain, a senator from Arizona, has added high-profile people to his fundraising network in place from his failed 2000 presidential bid, including Lewis M. Eisenberg, a Bush backer in 2004 and former partner at Goldman Sachs who founded the Granite Capital International Group. McCain is likely to forego public financing should he become the GOP nominee, as some Democrats have already said they will do.
  • Giuliani, the former Republican mayor of New York City, has assembled a roster of corporate executives to help him raise money—relationships he formed in part through his lucrative business dealings. They include T. Boone Pickens, a billionaire oil tycoon from Texas who was a top Bush fundraiser. Giuliani brought in $1.4 million in the first few weeks of his campaign and has $2 million left from an aborted Senate bid in 2000.
  • Clinton, a senator from New York, hopes to raise at least $75 million this year. Her network includes many fundraisers from former President Clinton’s campaigns. Also on board: Haim Saban, a Hollywood studio investor and creator of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. She has asked contributors to give the maximum amount for both the primary and general election since she plans to bypass the public financing system entirely.
  • Obama, a freshman Democratic senator from Illinois, isn’t accepting donations from political action committees and lobbyists. Instead, he is relying in part on small donors and first-time contributors. Following Clinton’s lead, he’s indicated he also will not accept public campaign financing for either the primaries or the general election. But he has also asked the FEC if he can return donors’ money later and still qualify for public financing in case he changes his mind. (Jeffrey Katzenberg, a founder of the DreamWorks movie studio, is backing Obama and is part of a group hosting a Feb. 20 Hollywood fundraiser for him.)
  • Edwards, a former Democratic senator from North Carolina, is building on the remnants of a fundraising network from his unsuccessful 2004 presidential run, although its unclear whether he retains the lock on trial lawyers’ money he once had. Like Obama, he isn’t accepting donations from political action committees and lobbyists. And like Clinton and Obama, he plans to reject public financing. So far, ACTBlue.com says he has raised more than $700,000 online from nearly 7,000 donors.

“We’re entering a brave new world of presidential fundraising,” said Michael Toner, an FEC commissioner. He said a perfect storm of conditions exist that have caused candidates to seek more money faster than ever.

The presidential campaign itself has started far earlier than before. With more than two dozen people running or considering a bid, fundraising has a way of winnowing out a crowded field. Also, since none of the major candidates are expected to accept public financing for the nomination race, they can ignore spending caps in early primary and caucus states—encouraging them to raise even more money.

At the same time, the political calendar begins with a crush of caucuses and primaries. It may get worse as several large states with expensive media markets seek to hold their contests early. That means candidates must ensure they have the cash to put organizations in place in more states and the money to spend on costly TV ads.

In this high-stakes environment, Romney’s campaign epitomizes the feverish hunt for cash.

Lesser known than McCain and Giuliani on a national level, Romney set out to prove immediately that he could bring in the money needed for a formidable challenge to both political celebrities. His goal for the first quarter was to start strong and continue building momentum.

‘Success’ on the Web
Just days after he created his presidential exploratory committee, Romney brought 400 volunteers to Boston to dial for dollars using a custom-made software program dubbed the ComMITT system that allows volunteers to set goals and gather pledges and actual donations online. The take was $6.5 million in a single day.

In the meantime, his Internet team focused on maximizing donations to his campaign Web site, http://www.mittromney.com. Aides say the campaign did a small-dollar Web ad buy on conservative sites and on Google to drive grass-roots donors to the site. From Jan. 3 until this week, the site brought in more than $1.4 million.

“The amount of money we’ve raised in our first month at mittromney.com demonstrates the success Governor Romney is having connecting with grass-roots supporters and online activists across the country,” said Matt Rhoades, a Romney spokesman.

By comparison, Howard Dean, the Democrats’ Internet fundraising pioneer who entered the 2004 race with low name recognition, didn’t reach the $1 million mark online until a couple months after he set up his Web site—and a full year after he created his campaign committee.

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