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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Next week, presidential candidates from both parties will report how much money they raised this quarter.

Last quarter, Senator John McCain, once considered the Republican frontrunner, came in third behind Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. And in the all-important expectations game, that's left McCain in a tough spot.

NPR's Greg Allen covered McCain's fundraising this week in Florida and he has this report.

GREG ALLEN: The Sunshine State receives regular and frequent visits from just about every presidential candidate and none more than John McCain.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Now I'm glad to be here in Florida coincidentally with the movement of the primary to January 29th. That's just pure coincidence. But…

(Soundbite of laughter)

ALLEN: Along with its early primary, Florida has something else attractive to candidates: money.

Senator McCain held at least six fundraisers during a two-day swing through the state this week, hitting major cities from Miami to Jacksonville.

At last night's Lincoln Day dinner in Orlando, Jackie Wilson(ph) said she's a McCain supporter, but at the same time, she's a realist.

Ms. JACKIE WILSON (Senator John McCain's Supporter): I think he's a wonderful man, but I don't think his chances are way up there. Like they say in the polls, he's third in line right now. We're hoping that he'll move up a little bit more, but…

ALLEN: Polls show McCain trailing Romney, Giuliani and, in some cases, the latest Republican hopeful, actor and former senator, Fred Thompson. Some of this is chocked up to McCain's support for an unpopular war and an unpopular immigration bill.

This early in the race, polls may not mean much. But how much cash a candidate raises is an important indicator about how he or she's doing with the core group: party donors.

Stuart Rothenberg publishes the Rothenberg Political Report.

Mr. STUART ROTHENBERG (Publisher, The Rothenberg Political Report): The buzz is that Senator McCain's presidential race is in trouble, his fundraising in the previous quarter was a little disappointing, especially compared to some of his rivals. And so people will be looking at his fundraising numbers to see how energetic that campaign is and whether he may be rallying.

ALLEN: McCain says he's working hard to raise more money than last quarter, but at the same time, he says, don't expect too much.

Sen. McCAIN: Oh, I think it's important to do okay. It's been very tough. We - you know, there's a lot of candidates and there's a lot and there's the - people are a little dispirited, but we're working hard. And we weren't going to win this campaign on money anyway. It's going to do in the town hall meetings, getting on a bus, going from one town to another. That's the kind of campaign we'll carry on and money doesn't play that big a role in that kind of campaigning.

ALLEN: It's not that McCain isn't raising a lot of money. Rothenberg says he expects McCain will report raising $15 million or more this quarter, and that's more than enough to run his campaign. McCain's problem, Rothenberg says, is that by lagging behind Romney and Giuliani, he's created a perception that his candidacy is losing steam.

Mr. ROTHENBERG: I think perceptions about the quality of the campaign, his fundraising, and his viability affect the extent to which he can draw a crowd, and draw attention, and get people to listen to his message. So absolutely, message is important. There's no doubt about that in anybody's mind. The question is whether people are listening to John McCain, whether they believe he can win, whether they will pay attention to him.

ALLEN: There's another factor that may contribute to McCain's fundraising challenge. For years in the Senate, he's made the cost of campaign finance reform, working to reduce the influence of money in campaigns. And while there are a few candidates more comfortable on the stomp, the other equally important part of campaigning is raising money, and McCain freely admits he doesn't like it.

I mean, are you learning to enjoy it more or after?

Sen. McCAIN: A little straight talk, no.

ALLEN: How well McCain does in overcoming his distaste for fundraising, while important, isn't the only thing that will determine the future of his campaign. In 2003, many people rode off Democratic candidate John Kerry for many of the same reasons and he eventually came back to win his party's nomination.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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