Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Totals are based on announcements from the campaigns. Sen. Barack Obama's campaign has not announced yet. Details on how much of the money raised can be spent on the primaries versus the general election will be available April 15, when campaigns must file official reports with the Federal Election Commission.
Most of the major candidates for president in both parties have announced their fundraising figures for the first quarter — with totals that would have been enough for a whole campaign not so many years ago. But though the numbers may sound impressive, it's not yet clear how much of the money can actually be spent in the primaries.
The first-quarter books closed at midnight Saturday. As candidates announced how much they had raised on Sunday and Monday, they carefully selected the numbers they made public, seeking to achieve maximum impact.
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton topped fundraising efforts among the Democratic candidates. She raised $26 million in the first three months of this year, plus $10 million transferred in from her Senate campaign. Raising nearly as much on the Republican side of the aisle was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney: He's raised $21 million so far, plus $2 million in a candidate loan.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama — Clinton's rival for the Democratic nomination — is apparently waiting for a day of his own to announce his totals.
There are still nine months to go before real voters make real choices. Meanwhile, the fundraising numbers game is one of the scoreboards for candidates — none more so than Clinton. Her goal is a sense of inevitability.
In a conference call with reporters Sunday, Clinton's campaign sought to lay down a marker for all to see. Campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle used superlatives to characterize the quarter's fundraising, saying, "We are completely overwhelmed and gratified by the historic support that we gotten this quarter."
By contrast, the campaign of Sen. John McCain, who raised $13 million, admitted disappointment at trailing both Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who reported $15 million in contributions.
A fuller picture of the money race won't come until April 15, the deadline for campaigns to file their official finance reports at the Federal Election Commission. Until then, everything is spin.
For example, Clinton, Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards are known to be raising money they cannot spend in the primaries. It comes in contributions earmarked for the general election. The three Democrats are soliciting contributions for both primary and general election accounts. A donor can put as much as $2,300 into each account. But the general election money is sequestered until the fall of 2008. In 2007, it counts only to make the fundraising grand total look even more grand.
Edwards' campaign says that of the $14 million he has raised, only about $1 million is for the general election.
But Clinton's campaign has declined to give a breakdown of her $26 million fundraising total. If a significant percentage turns out to be general-election money, it could reduce her fundraising lead over Obama, Edwards and other Democrats — and thus reduce the sense of inevitability promoted by her campaign.
Fred Wertheimer, head of the campaign reform group Democracy 21, says, "I don't know if it's going to backfire," but he adds this caveat: "People ought to be careful in understanding that, until we find out how much of Sen. Clinton's $26 million is available to be used in the primaries, we will not know how much of a financial advantage she has for the primary election."
And there's one other potential pitfall in all of this spin.
Massie Ritsch, at the non-profit Center for Responsive Politics, says that everyone may be making too much of the money chase.
"The candidates may be surprised to find that the public doesn't especially like to hear about money," Ritsch says, noting that the 2006 exit polls recorded voter frustration with money and influence in Washington. "The more you talk about money and measure your viability in terms of money, the less the public is going to take to that message."
That could be a concern. But right now, candidates are more concerned about how their cash stacks up against that of their rivals.