Raising money is proving to be distinctly harder for Republican presidential candidates than for their Democratic counterparts. In part, the Republicans are dogged by the unpopularity of President Bush and the war in Iraq. But there's also the specter of a prominent non-candidate lurking on the sidelines: actor and former senator Fred Thompson.
The top three GOP candidates are former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who raised about $21 million between January 1 and March 31; ex-New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, raising $15 million, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, at $13 million. Together, the three outspent Democrats Sen. Hillary Clinton (NY), Sen. Barack Obama (IL) and former North Carolina senator John Edwards in the first quarter by 80 percent — but the Democrats out-raised the Republicans by 35 percent.
And so when actor and former senator Fred Thompson visited with House Republicans last week, he left more than a few of them starry-eyed.
"A lot of people are seeing in Fred Thompson a leadership," said Rep. Sue Myrick of North Carolina, "and really a way to help galvanize this country and bring people together that we haven't seen in a long time."
At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, political scientist John Geer says that Romney, Giuliani and McCain all have problems satisfying the party's conservative base. "That's why Fred Thompson poses such a threat, because there's lots of money out there to be raised," Geer says.
There are fundraising questions hanging over all three of the leading Republicans.
Giuliani leads the national polls, but has the smallest donor base. Campaign manager Mike DuHaime says that Giuliani got a late start.
"It takes a little while to build that donor base," DuHaime says. "That 30,000 donors reflects little more than one month's work."
McCain claims the largest donor base — 60,000 supporters, twice as many as Giuliani. But McCain raised the least money, and carried the smallest cash balance into the second quarter. The candidate attended just one fundraising event in January and two in February. Finally, in March, he appeared at 23 events.
Sheila Krumholz is director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which analyzed the presidential fundraising for NPR. She says that McCain may be poorer than Romney and Giuliani, but his fundraising came on strong at the end of the quarter.
"Whether it came from his pleas to his base that he really needed them to come out, or whether it came from his refocusing his campaign finance operation, he was right in there with Romney and Giuliani," Krumholz says.
Mitt Romney, with the most money of all the Republicans, is nonetheless running fourth in the polls, after the non-candidate Thompson.
Romney jump-started his campaign with a day devoted to raising money, Jan. 8. The campaign brought 400 well-connected friends and supporters to Boston, where they hit the phones for him. It ended up in a slick video production, which climaxed with the presentation of a giant-sized check to Romney, for $6.5 million.
But those were dollars pledged, not dollars actually raised. The real numbers, according to the Romney campaign's reports to the Federal Election Commission: In the week following Jan. 8, $2.4 million came in to the campaign; the following week, less than $700,000.
Still, the campaign video included a clip of Romney late on Jan. 8, expressing gratitude for what he suggested was a record-setting flood of political money. As the soundtrack music swelled, Romney said: "You know, I've always thought that the most important things in my life were family, God and country. But I've learned in the last day that friends go way up on that list. I don't think there's ever been a larger amount of money raised. It's an extraordinary vote of confidence on the part of my friends."
Romney's campaign wouldn't comment on its fundraising for this story. But as one GOP campaign veteran points out, people play games with pledges.