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Follow The Money

Presidential Hopefuls Raise Lots Of Cash (Good Luck Learning From Whom)

As would-be presidential candidates lay the foundations for their 2012 campaigns, one top priority has been stockpiling cash. And every prospect has been busy doing just that.

But just try to find any records of who gave that cash. Even as politicians celebrate the notion of transparency, the 2008 White House race lingers in the memory. And it was the most freewheeling and unbridled money chase since the presidential contest of 1972.

President Obama announced for a second term on April 4. By acting in April rather than March, he ensured that the first hard information on his fundraising could become public as late as July 15, the Federal Election Commission's reporting deadline for the second quarter. If the campaign files monthly reports, the first disclosure would come on May 20. But in 2007, at least, Obama For America only filed quarterly.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama's campaign is aiming at raising $1 billion by Election Day. It's a sum that dwarfs any previous presidential campaign except the president's own first run, which raised $746 million in 2007-08.

His campaign manager recently told the big-dollar fundraisers, known as "bundlers," that they need to bring in $350,000 each in 2011. And Mr. Obama's April itinerary includes visits to Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, the home cities of many major donors.

He warmed up last month with six fundraising events – although all were for the Democratic National Committee and House and Senate campaign committees, not for the Obama-Biden committee.

Among Republicans, just two candidates have officially declared: Former governors Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Buddy Roemer of Louisiana both filed their candidacy papers last month.

Like most of the other GOP hopefuls, Pawlenty has a political action committee. It hasn't yet filed a first-quarter report, and a campaign spokesman said there's not much to file.

The Freedom First PAC was closed down during the first quarter, and the presidential committee didn't open till late March. In fact, he said, the campaign asked donors to hold onto their checks until April 1.

Political scientist John Geer, at Vanderbilt University, says the strategy seems to apply broadly in the GOP primary contest. "There's a real incentive on the Republican side to ask [donors] to contribute, but have them wait till later," Geer said. That concentrates the money in one report, "so [the candidates] will look more viable than they really are."

But declared candidates aren't the ones making a splash in the GOP. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has let on that she raised $2.2 million in the first quarter. That's compared to $1.8 million for Free And Strong America PAC, headed by Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and 2008 primary candidate who had been thought to have the most powerful financial network.

Most of Bachmann's new money is in her congressional campaign account. She filed last month to run for re-election. But she can legally move those dollars to a presidential campaign. She cannot however transfer money from the smaller coffers of her political action committee, MICHELEPAC (the Many Individual Conservatives Helping Elect Leaders Everywhere committee, if you're keeping track). That organization bankrolls her travels around the country in between actual campaigns for office.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich declared March 3 that he's "testing the waters" for a possible run. Under FEC rules, he now can raise and spend money in secret to finance that waters-testing process. The restrictions set by the commission: He has to comply with the contribution limits of an actual candidate, and if he decides to run, he has to disclose everything retroactively.

Gingrich also has a large, complex organization that continues to operate. One small element of "Newt Inc.," as it's known, is the American Solutions PAC, which reported to the FEC in March that it raised just $18,815 during January and February.

But the biggest component is American Solutions for Winning the Future, a so-called 527 organization that files with the IRS under Section 527 of the tax code. Its first semi-annual report for 2011 is due July 31.

The lack of disclosure this far into a presidential campaign cycle is a throw-back to pre-Watergate politics, said Peter Francia, a political scientist at East Carolina University. "There are even more places to put your money without meaningful disclosure," he said.

Referring to the Watergate scandal, in which President Nixon's White House traded policy decisions for corporate donations and his campaign funneled secret contributions into covert activities, Francia said, "We saw what happened when there wasn't meaningful campaign disclosure."