'Money primary' bragging rights start Sunday

/ Source: msnbc.com

The first “primary” ends Sunday, when the deadline passes for first-quarter contributions to 2008 presidential candidates. Inside the Beltway, we make a big deal of these numbers as the first concrete measure of… actually, I’m not quite sure of what.

Early money doesn’t necessarily mean late money, let alone guarantee you the nomination. What matters is how you raise the cash – the Internet having become the preferred method. Among Democrats, the net’s role will become even more central once MoveOn, with 3.2 million acivist members, cranks up a novel series of online “town halls” this spring. They will feature one-click links to campaign fundraising sites. If you like what the candidate says on, say, the war in Iraq or health care, have your credit card handy!

Then there is the matter of timing. If you enter the race late (as, say Al Gore and Newt Gingrich might next fall, or Fred Thompson this spring), you have the chance to catch a free-media wave, worth more than any heavy buy of TV ads – and avoid this early grind altogether.

Still, we want to know who has Hoovered up how much. Interviews with fundraisers, staffers, consultants and kibitzers leave me a tentative bottom line. Among Democrats, Sen. Hillary Clinton is likely to finish first, with at least $25 million raised – a formidable number. One well-plugged-in fundraiser for Hillary tells me the total could in fact be a whopping 30 million -- not counting a multi-million "carry over" of funds raised last year.)  Sen. Barack Obama could be in the $15-20 million range, quite an achievement for a campaign only a couple months old. Former Sen. John Edwards, helped by a surge of sympathy and support for his wife and her battle with breast cancer, could be in the $10-$15 million range.

Presidents Gramm and Dean
On the Republican side, it sounds as though former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, intent on showing that he belongs in the big leagues by raising money, will finish first, in the neighborhood of $20 million. He will be followed, as one insider put it, by a disappointing “15-ish” for Sen. John McCain and “13-ish” for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

So, if these numbers are borne out, does that mean Hillary and Mitt have it locked up? Obviously not. For one, money, especially early money, isn’t everything. Ask presidents Phil Gramm and Howard Dean. Second, early doesn’t always translate into late, either on the up side or the down. Romney is raising tons of money, but – despite quite extensive media exposure – doesn’t seem to be making much if any progress in the national polls.

McCain’s strategists argue that he didn’t get serious about fundraising until March, and that he’ll do better this spring. I doubt that, but let’s see. Hillary (with an assist from Bill) squeezed their carefully-maintained donor lists as hard as possible for the first quarter. But not all of them were enthusiastic about the embrace – and not sufficiently excited about Hillary to do what the campaign needs next: scramble to find a new generation of donors to squeeze.

It’s Obama who has the upside – if he can survive the next round of media scrutiny and oppo attacks. He is attracting a new generation of donors, literally. An example: Bob Rubin, the former Treasury secretary, is for Hillary; his son, Jamie, is for Barack. I’ve heard of several other examples among the lawyers, investment bankers and other members of the American donor class.

The Internet factor
The net may matter most in the end. You can fill ballrooms with fat cats and “max out” their support immediately – this year it is $2,300 per person for the nomination season. That is what Bill Clinton did last week, raising more than $2.5 million in one shot. But Dean, in 2003 and 2004, showed the immense, viral power of the Internet as a fund-raising tool. On the net you are dealing with literally millions of possible donors – and with a general public that has grown used to (even dependent on) using credit cards for online transactions.

Obama is likely to report the highest percentage of net-generated support among leading Democrats. Edwards, who has carefully nurtured his grassroots base and online presence, is expected to do well in that regard, too.

On the Republican side, it seems as though Giuliani is stealing the Washington outsider’s momentum from McCain – and, in doing so, McCain’s Internet appeal. McCain’s people are blaming his stumble this quarter on the fact that he relied too strongly, initially, on net-based fundraising. Rudy, by contrast, will show some surprising strength on the net.

Money is important, but timing is, too. Some of the savvier strategists here are convinced that if no one consolidates a lead on the GOP side, that either or both Thompson and Gingrich will enter the race. And with polls showing roughly half of the American people saying that they would “never” vote for Hillary, the search for the ideal Democratic standard bearer continues.

No one could raise more money in a hurry than Al Gore – except for Michael Bloomberg. And the New York mayor may have the best idea of all: run as an independent in the summer of 2008, and spend your own billions. That way you don’t need to raise money at all.