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And I'm Renee Montagne.

There are several ways to measure the progress of presidential candidates. One is polling. Another is voter turnout. A third is convention delegates. But one of the most important remains money.

INSKEEP: With the intensive campaigning in January, Mitt Romney spent around $19 million last month. Much of the money went for TV ads. He spent a lot more than he took in, as a matter of fact. Romney raised only about one-third as much.

MONTAGNE: But those are the numbers for the campaign. Theoretically, independent superPACs, supporting Romney and his rivals, raised millions more, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Reports filed at the Federal Election Commission last night showed just how important a superPAC can be. Last month, the campaign of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney raised $6.4 million. The pro-Romney superPAC called Restore Our Future raised more than that: 6.6 million. And three donors joined a select group who've given the superPAC 500,000 to a million dollars each.

Anthony Corrado is a political scientist at Colby College.

ANTHONY CORRADO: Basically, you know, what gave him his financial advantage were 25 donors to the superPAC.

OVERBY: The only catch is that legally, the campaign and the superPAC can't coordinate their messaging. An NPR analysis showed that Romney's campaign fundraising rose steadily in late 2011, peaking in December before dropping off this past month.

Again, Anthony Corrado.

CORRADO: For me, the marker is I look at McCain last time...

OVERBY: That is Senator John McCain in January 2008. His presidential campaign was staggering and almost broke going into the New Hampshire primary. McCain won New Hampshire, and this year, so did Romney.

But Corrado points out only McCain got a fundraising bounce out of it.

CORRADO: He ended up with $11 million coming in, in January, you know, versus this Romney number, which is basically the same number he had last time. In 2008, if you look at the month of January, he raised 6.4 million in contributions.

OVERBY: The Romney financial report has other red flags. That January 2012 number was down almost half from December. Romney raised more money than any other candidate from maxed-out donors, those who have hit the legal limit. Maxed-out donors cannot be solicited again.

But the Romney campaign and the pro-Romney superPAC together outspent the rest of the field combined. That would include former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Congressman Ron Paul and former senator Rick Santorum, plus a superPAC for each of them.

The Gingrich and Santorum superPACs finished January in a better financial position than the candidates themselves. But there were some surprises. To start with, last week, President Obama's campaign and the Democratic National Committee reported raising $29 million in January. That's down from the Obama campaign's total for January 2008. And there were some demonstrations of surprising strength.

Michael Malbin, director of the Campaign Finance Institute, cites the report filed by Rick Santorum. He raised twice as much in January as in all of 2011.

MICHAEL MALBIN: This is a very steep and impressive rise.

OVERBY: But Malbin says that doesn't mean Santorum can come close to matching Romney's budget. Back in 2008, Romney put in $40 million of his own money. This time, Malbin says the big donors to the superPAC are essentially doing it for him.

MALBIN: Everybody understands that a contribution to this supposedly independent expenditure committee really is a contribution, for all practical purposes, for Romney.

OVERBY: And even if fundraising heats up for the other candidates at this stage, Malbin says it may be too little, too late.

MALBIN: Romney has built an organizational machine over the last four years. He's a frontrunner for a reason.

OVERBY: In other words, if Mitt Romney's campaign stumbles in the next few weeks, that could be problem of political messaging, not a problem of having enough money to get that message out.

Peter Overby, NPR News Washington

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