By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 3/28/2007 3:36:47 PM ET 2007-03-28T19:36:47
ANALYSIS

In just days, the insider political world is going to get a glimpse of which one of the presidential candidates are truly contenders and which ones are potentially pretenders.

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This Saturday marks the end of the 1st quarter fundraising period in the presidential race. Candidates have been jockeying for weeks in the hopes that whatever number they report, it gets showcased in the best possible light.

What I want to do is give folks a viewer's guide to interpreting the reports.  How to collectively look at the totals and then what to look for in each campaign.

First, the most significant news may be the simple fact that the Democratic field, collectively, will outraise the Republican field. Bush outraised the Dems combined during the lead up to the ‘04 primaries. The GOP frontrunners outraised the Dem frontrunners in ’00 and, frankly, it was never that close in any previous election for an open presidency contest.  Republicans traditionally raised and spent more money than Democrats on presidential races. Well, the tide may have turned.

Does this mean the Democratic fundraising base is now bigger than the GOP base? Possibly, but I'd chalk it up to simple enthusiasm. Democrats are more excited about their presidential choices than Republicans.

Also, the actual dollar amounts being raised by individual candidates is truly unbelievable. It's possible that six candidates could raise over $20 million in the first quarter. Six!?!?!  What I wouldn't give to be running an advance campaign business in Iowa or New Hampshire.

The ginormous fundraising success begs the question of whether money is finite anymore. One could argue that it simply isn't. It's a commodity that, once critical mass is achieved by a candidate, is easy to get. It has opened up the process and, frankly, showed the relative weakness of the political party establishments. Think about it. Under the system of 20 years ago, Hillary Clinton and John McCain would be considered unstoppable. Now? They could still be the nominees, but if they win, it won't be because they bought it.

Now, for a quick rundown of what to look for regarding each candidate.

First the Democrats...
Clinton:
Thanks to $11 million in leftover senate funds, there's no doubt who will be the cash Queen of the Quarter. The questions that remain with her money include: 1) How big will the gap be between Hillary and Obama. 2) How fat is her payroll? And for those Clintonistas complaining about the absurd expectations some of us have in regards money, you have just one person to blame: ex-DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe. His donor bullying combined with $1 million per Hillraiser bragging had many of us early on convinced Hillary would average $50 million a quarter. Maybe that's unfair, but Terry can be a salesman to both positive and negative results. The gut says her number, minus general election money and the transfer will be in the low 30s. Toss in those other two categories and she might get to $50 million for the quarter.

Obama: Something tells me we're in for a surprise. Maybe not in total raised (though $25-30M isn't out of the question). It's the total number of donors that will make folks stand up and take notice. If he has more total donors and is within $5 million of Hillary overall, then we may have to start referring to both of them as "co-frontrunners."

Edwards: In a vacuum, the Edwards camp seems to be quite pleased with their fundraising. Remember, in '03 Edwards won the first money quarter with nearly $7.5 million raised. It's likely he'll more than double that number and yet still finish behind Hillary and Obama. It will be possible to track some of the post-Elizabeth announcement money when the report is officially filed April 15.

The rest of the Dem field: The battle for fourth place will be interesting if the campaign that finishes fourth is closer to Edwards than fifth. Smart money is on Chris Dodd to finish fourth thanks to his golden insurance and banking gavel. But keep an eye on Bill Richardson's totals. That guy is a tireless campaigner and he may do better than we think. Frankly, it's possible all of the second tier Dems raise $5 million+, a truly remarkable feat, given that just two did it in 2003-04.

On to the Republicans...
McCain:
Up until last weekend, I was convinced McCain was destined for second place for the quarter. But something about the way McCain softened his financial expectations personally has me nervous that his campaign is having some fun at Mitt Romney's expense. His campaign team members are masters of the expectation game. Apparently $25 million isn't out of the question and that just might top Romney, which would be a moral victory for the once-and-future frontrunner who has a press corps desperate to write "McCain doesn't have it this time" stories.

Romney: No candidate has more so-called "low hanging fruit" than Mitt Romney, which is why so many folks expect him to raise big money. From Boston, to Bainiacs (ex-Bain Capital colleagues) Mormons and Olympic folks, Romney has a lot of rich friends. Frankly, the campaign needs to finish first because the other aspects of the campaign (namely message) have been suffering.

Giuliani: The leanest campaign of the Big Six is Rudy's and therefore it's possible that Rudy finishes third in money raised but second in cash-on-hand which would be a nice feather for the campaign and showcase the spending war and fat payrolls both McCain and Romney are sporting. (BTW: Don't be surprised if one or more of the campaigns delays payroll until after March 31 just to simply boost their cash totals; it's an old trick, but still a good one)

The rest of the GOP field: How many of the second tier will top $5M? My guess is two: Sam Brownback (Small donor base will be more impressive than some think.) and Duncan Hunter (His one-time hold on the Armed Services gavel gives him access to some low-hanging fruit.) The disappointment may be Mike Huckabee, who, if he had Romney's personal connections and pure campaign drive would be a first tier candidate.

Be your own pundit next week with these reports and comment away to me at First Read as to how NBC News should cover the money primary. Some may complain this is too horse racey of a story, but politics is big business and an important business and you can't govern if you don't win.

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