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Money is not all that matters in '08 picture

The record-shattering presidential fundraising totals posted by Hillary Clinton and John Edwards pose as many questions as they provide answers.
Clinton 2008
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., listens as she is introduced at the Communications Workers of America National Legislative-Political Conference in Washington.Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The record-shattering presidential fundraising totals posted by Hillary Clinton and John Edwards pose as many questions as they provide answers.

While the money chase is an important gauge of political strength, it is not the only measure that matters this early in the 2008 race.

The numbers shed no light on how wisely the campaigns are spending the millions they are taking in or how much money they have left.

With more and more states rushing to hold primaries in January and early February, candidates must be careful to build the state-by-state operations they need now while socking away plenty of money for ads later.

In the 2004 Democratic race, then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean stunned his rivals by leading the field with a then-record $40 million as 2004 began, but he burned through it quickly and the donations dwindled after poor showings in the early balloting.

On Sunday, Clinton and Edwards chose to announce only their money totals; they do not have to make detailed fundraising and spending reports public until April 15.

Clinton's campaign, which reported total receipts of $36 million, would not say how much of her $26 million in new contributions were general election donations that would be useless in her primary campaign. In addition to the donations, Clinton transferred $10 million from her Senate campaign account.

Edwards aides said his $14 million in new contributions included $1 million for the general election.

Neither the Edwards nor the Clinton camps wanted to discuss how much cash they had left, making it more difficult to assess how the two campaigns stack up against each other.

"Things look very good for the Hillary campaign and the Edwards campaign," said Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant not aligned with any of the hopefuls. "The devil could be in the details."

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois has not yet divulged his first-quarter total, nor have any of the Republican candidates.

That decision illustrates that fundraising is not only about numbers, but also about managing positive _ or at least trying to put off negative _ media coverage.

Early fundraising can also be the easiest, as candidates tap the contributors they know best.

A look back
Edwards in 2003 led the Democratic field by raising $7.4 million in the first quarter; the numbers dropped in the next three quarters. Texas Sen. Phil Gramm raised $8.7 million in the first quarter of 1995 in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, but he finished fifth in the Iowa caucus and dropped out before the New Hampshire primary.

Clinton's numbers put her well on her way toward a stated goal of raising $75 million by the end of the year.

Former Federal Election Commission Chairman Michael Toner, a Republican, said Clinton is on track to raise a record $100 million this year.

"The question is going to be which other campaign can join her at that level," he said.

Edwards, Toner said, had a "very solid start."

Clinton's total, helped by her Senate campaign transfer and inflated by the unknown amount for the general election, exceeds the $31 million that all presidential candidates reported raising in the first three months of 2003.

Still, Backus said Clinton's numbers were "awe but not shock," and may not serve to scare away contenders in a field that already has been winnowed by fear of a need for big money.

For candidates seeking to break out of second-tier status, the first quarter could prove to be a stepping stone or a pitfall.

New Mexico Gov. Richardson showed he had enough of a support base to raise $6 million and keep $5 million in the bank while spending most of his time in Santa Fe during New Mexico's legislative session.

Aides say he intends to devote himself more fully to fundraising in the second quarter. The question for him, then, is whether he can emerge from the also-running list and build himself into a contender in some of the states with early nominating contests.

Aides to Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said he raised more than $4 million, transferred nearly $5 million from his Senate campaign and had $7.5 million in the bank. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., lagged behind, with his staff reporting that he had total receipts of nearly $4 million, including a transfer from his Senate campaign account.