Money's Going to Talk in 2008

Sen. John McCain tours New Orleans Friday. One of President Bush's big-money 2004 fundraisers has agreed to help the Arizona Republican. (Associated Press)
Sen. John McCain tours New Orleans Friday. One of President Bush's big-money 2004 fundraisers has agreed to help the Arizona Republican. (Associated Press) (By Alex Brandon -- Associated Press)
By Thomas B. Edsall and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 11, 2006

Michael E. Toner, the chairman of the Federal Election Commission, has some friendly advice for presidential candidates who plan to be taken seriously by the time nominating contests start in early 2008: Bring your wallet.

"There is a growing sense that there is going to be a $100 million entry fee at the end of 2007 to be considered a serious candidate," Toner said in a recent interview.

The jockeying for the presidential nominations in both major parties is already vigorously underway, as illustrated by the parade of GOP contenders on display this weekend at a meeting of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis. For now, however, the main arena of competition is financial, as candidates prepare themselves for a race most analysts believe will involve sums vastly larger than those spent on previous presidential campaigns.

Many political operatives are expecting that the gradual breakdown of the public funding system -- federal funds in exchange for spending limits -- that has taken place in recent years will become complete in 2008. The result would be candidates in both parties racing far past old spending records, and facing new pressure to begin raising money far in advance of the election year.

Not all political finance experts and campaign operatives agree with Toner that raising $100 million over the next 22 months is the price of admission for candidates who want to establish credibility and compete on an equal footing. The $100 million is nearly three times the previous threshold for being regarded in national political circles as a first-tier candidate. But it is plain that a number of factors have converged that will render obsolete old assumptions about what it costs to run for president.

First among those factors is the 2004 precedent. President Bush and Democratic nominee John F. Kerry decided then to do without public matching funds in the nominating phase of the campaign -- money that came with a requirement to limit spending to just $44.7 million each. They went on to raise $274.7 million and $253 million, respectively, before accepting public funding for the general election campaign in the fall. Their success established what many strategists believe will be a new norm in presidential politics.

What's more, many analysts believe that 2008 will be a clash of such titanic intensity that the nominees will reject public funding -- and the spending limits that govern it -- even for the fall campaign. If so, most bets are that each major-party candidate would need to raise in excess of $400 million by the Nov. 4, 2008, election. Candidates would want to raise as much of that money as early as possible, so as not to waste precious campaign time holding fundraisers.

Steve Elmendorf, the deputy manager for Kerry's general election campaign against Bush, predicted that accepting matching funds is a "thing of the past in the primary and the general." Public funding of presidential campaigns was started in 1976 in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

A final factor inflating the pressure to raise money early is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). She has a proven ability to raise money on a national scale, and if she runs for president in 2008 she will raise the stakes for competitors in both parties.

Other Democratic contenders, such as Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) or former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner, would need to raise money aggressively to avoid being swamped by sums. Many Republicans, meanwhile, believe that their candidates must base their fundraising strategies on the assumption that Clinton will turn down public financing and set a new standard for fundraising and spending in the fall campaign.

One Republican 2008 operative, discussing campaign strategy on the condition of anonymity, said it would be "irresponsible" for a candidate to be thinking solely about spending needs for a primary election campaign without weighing "the consequences of what Hillary is bringing to the financial table and how quickly a potential nominee will have to turn his attention to dealing with her campaign."

The practical effect of the revved-up fundraising race means that candidates who do not enjoy national name recognition or a national fundraising network must troll the country relentlessly to build relationships with wealthy individuals in key donor states such as New York, California and Florida.

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