Presidential candidates are deep into a surge of fundraising activity.
The accounting books close on the third quarter of 2007 at midnight Sunday. Official reports of fundraising and spending are due in mid-October; it is the last such disclosure that the presidential campaigns will make before the first primary ballots are cast.
So this week, presidential fundraising is all about gimmicks.
Democrat Barack Obama, a senator from Illinois, has a plain-spoken pitch online. Give now and not only will someone else match it, but he or she will write you a note. Obama closes the Web video this way: "You'll double the impact of your donation, and you'll get to know the person who matched your gift. Please be a part of this historic drive, and please be part of changing this country."
Other Democrats go even further. Give to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton by Sept. 30 and you might get to watch a presidential debate with her husband, former president Bill Clinton. Former Sen. John Edwards will pick donors to join him in New Orleans for a post-Katrina rebuilding project.
Republicans are doing it, too. Arizona Sen. John McCain invites three lucky donors for a ride on his bus, the Straight Talk Express. And anyone who logs onto the Web site of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gets this Web video greeting from the candidate: "Hi. I'm Mitt Romney, and I would like you to invite you to participate in a Rally for Romney in your local community."
Later in the video, Romney says he hopes your local rally can come up with at least $1,000 by Sunday night.
The top presidential campaigns are smashing all records for fundraising — $265 million so far. Political scientist Tony Corrado, who tracks political money at Colby College, says the tactics are different from just four years ago.
"Howard Dean would urge supporters to try to equal the amount being raised at a Vice President Cheney fundraiser," Corrado said. "Now what we're finding this year is all kinds of gimmicks, contests, online appeals — anything they can try to get more money in the door, and try to get individuals calling their friends and neighbors for small contributions."
But the gimmicks don't always work so well.
Rudolph Giuliani's campaign promoted a National House Party Night this week — to raise money, of course. Two volunteers in California decided to price their party tickets at $9.11, intending to commemorate Giuliani's role as mayor of New York during the Sept. 11 attacks.
Critics called it disrespectful. Giuliani called it unfortunate and moved on. But he had more bad news: The chief of his fundraising operation abruptly left, allegedly over strategy differences.
"This is not a good time for questions about fundraising," says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. He adds that Giuliani's staff change is hardly the biggest question among the Republican contenders. None of them is sweeping up money the way President Bush did in the 2000 or 2004 campaigns, or the way the Democrats are doing right now.
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson "just became an official candidate, so he certainly needs to outraise the other candidates," Rothenberg said. "The question is, how much is he going to raise and how much are they going to raise? The other big question is, is John McCain going to raise cash in a way that suggests he has resuscitated his campaign?"
McCain's campaign was plagued through much of this year by mediocre fundraising and poorly controlled spending. Now he's trying to get back on track, barely three months away from the first voting.
All of the candidates need to have impressive tallies for their third-quarter fundraising Sunday night. They also need to have a big pile of cash on-hand for the primaries, which will hit them like a tidal wave this winter.