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In a continually changing Republican contest with candidates moving up in the polls and then down again, there's another set of numbers to watch. The candidates all filed their quarterly fundraising reports with the Federal Election Commission.

And President Obama's campaign reported a stunning $61 million cash on hand as of September 30th, with the election still more than a year away. Here's NPR's Peter Overby on the big money on the Republican race for the White House.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The Republican primaries are in flux. At least four states are moving their contests up to January, trying to influence the outcome. And among the candidates, only one - former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney - appears to be solid in both his finances and his poll standing. One candidate back in the pack is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He said on CNN's "State of the Union" yesterday that back in the pack isn't a permanent condition.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")

NEWT GINGRICH: Nobody's done in this business. I mean, at this stage last time, McCain was in third place.

OVERBY: But Gingrich raised less than a million dollars in the third quarter. Romney raised $14 million. And Texas governor Rick Perry outraised him with $17 million.

There's a question of whether Perry's financial strength is sustainable. He's fallen in the polls, following poor performances in several debates. An NPR analysis found that his fundraising dropped 60 percent the week following the first of those debates in early September. That same week, Romney's fundraising went up 50 percent.

The successor to Perry at the top of the polls is businessman Herman Cain. But he finished the quarter with just $1.3 million in the bank. For Romney and Perry, cash on hand was about $15 million each.

MICHAEL MALBIN: After those two there's just a very big gap.

OVERBY: Michael Malbin is director of the Campaign Finance Institute. He says that once you get past Romney and Perry, it's hard to see anyone right now with the financial strength to navigate the tough primary calendar.

MALBIN: Mr. Cain is riding high in the polls but has got not just a big financial gap but a big organizational gap. Ron Paul is doing very well among small donors. But whether he can translate that into effective votes outside of Iowa and a couple other places we just don't know yet.

OVERBY: Another thing we don't know yet is the impact of super PACs. These are a new political animal, made possible in part by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

Super PACs are allowed to raise unlimited amounts from rich people, corporations and unions. There are super PACs dedicated to all of the major candidates. They're supposed to be independent. But each one is run by advisors and former staffers of the candidate. Despite that wide-open opportunity to raise money, some observers say that super PACs might not be such powerful game-changers.

ROBERT BOATRIGHT: Money that's not spent by the campaign is never going to be spent nearly as efficiently as the campaign would want it to be.

OVERBY: Robert Boatright is a political scientist at Clark University in Massachusetts. He says a strong candidate probably won't be drowned out by ads from a rival's super PAC.

BOATRIGHT: Say if Perry wanted to do this to Romney or vice versa, they both have enough money that they'd be able to figure out what was happening and counter it.

OVERBY: But Michael Malbin says the troubling aspect is the lack of disclosure. Just two of the super PACs, supporting Romney and Mr. Obama, have been around long enough to make any significant disclosure of their donors. Those disclosures were in July. The next reports are due in late January, the same time as the next filings by the candidates' campaign committees. Malbin notes that the Republican primary contest could be settled by then.

MALBIN: So this can be a campaign that begins and ends in the dark.

OVERBY: That may be good news for the candidates and some of their financial backers.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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