Candidates Stress Early Fundraising
Tallies for First Quarter Could Be Make-or-Break

By Anne E. Kornblut and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Presidential candidates are collecting contributions at a record-setting pace and are racing to load their schedules with fundraising events ahead of March 31, the campaign's cutoff for financial reports that will be filed next month.

The amounts that contenders can bring in will shape the narrative of the race for months to come -- potentially vaulting a candidate into the top tier -- and could spell an early exit for some.

Fundraising professionals say they expect the candidates to greatly exceed totals from previous cycles, perhaps by hundreds of millions of dollars. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), for example, mingled with about a thousand donors last night at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel for her campaign's second million-dollar-plus fundraiser in three days.

It is not simply Clinton's outsize fundraising power driving the vacuum-cleaner mentality. A confluence of other factors -- including voter dissatisfaction with the Bush administration, wide-open fields in both parties, higher donation caps, and a rush by large states such as California and Texas to move their primaries to the front of the nominating process -- has compelled campaigns to establish virtually round-the-clock fundraising schedules, with candidates and surrogates participating in sometimes a dozen events or more in a day. Not a single day in March will pass without at least one 2008 contender personally making a major push for funds.

The result: More than a year and a half before the election, the collective field could match in a single quarter the nearly $100 million that George W. Bush raised during his record-breaking primary effort two presidential cycles ago.

"It's almost a geometric increase," said Michael E. Toner, who left his post as a member of the Federal Election Commission last week.

Campaigns are also aggressively trying to manage expectations, providing low-ball estimates of what they will raise while exaggerating predictions for their opponents. Estimates of what Clinton will raise this quarter range from $15 million (the official prediction of the campaign, but one her own aides privately concede is low) to $50 million (a staggering and probably unrealistic figure).

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has similarly played down his goals, with aides saying they would be thrilled with a take of $7 million to $12 million this quarter. But there is ample evidence -- such as Obama's raising $1.3 million at a single Hollywood event -- to suggest that he could do better, perhaps hitting $20 million or higher.

One of the great unknowns is how former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) will fare. Clinton and Obama (as well as Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Sam Brownback of Kansas) must pay at least some attention to their positions in the Senate, but Edwards is unencumbered by a day job and is still riding his popularity as the vice presidential nominee in 2004. He has by all accounts been on a furious, if quiet, fundraising tear, hoping to at least match the $7.4 million he raised in the first quarter of 2003 -- a number that at the time led all contenders and vaulted him into serious contention.

For Edwards and other Democrats seeking to catch up with Clinton and Obama -- such as Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson -- the money flow, or lack thereof, could produce a moment of reckoning.

"It's a contest of elimination," said Fred Baron, Edwards's national finance chair. "If a candidate can't raise the money, it bodes poorly for that candidate and might cause them to rethink their candidacy."

Alan D. Solomont, chairman of Obama's fundraising effort in New England, described the campaign's fundraising venture as a "start-up" that has required building from the ground up in a short time. Obama is holding low-dollar "kickoff" fundraisers in cities nationwide, including a $100-per-ticket fundraiser in Denver and a $25-per-ticket event in Oklahoma City in recent days, and a $100-per-ticket event in West Palm Beach, Fla., this weekend.

At a recent breakfast in Cambridge, Mass., Obama spoke to about two dozen young venture capitalists -- many of them political novices -- in an effort to tap new pools of money rather than engage in a zero-sum game with Clinton. His supporters say the strategy is working.

"I had thought, 'Boy, this is going to be quite an effort,' not knowing how to raise money or who to even turn to, and within a couple weeks' time we had more than quadrupled my expectations in terms of what we would raise," said Dan Nova, 45, a first-time presidential fundraiser who held the breakfast event at his house. Nova declined to give the exact figure brought in but described it as a "significant, multi-hundred-thousand-dollar amount" -- far in excess of the $50,000 he set out to raise.

Obama's rivals argue that his ability to hold multimillion-dollar events in New York and Los Angeles belie the campaign's claim that his is simply a grass-roots movement without major financial players. He has stolen away dozens of Clinton fundraisers; hired a veteran finance director, Julianna Smoot; and signed up a talented team of Web designers at the company Blue State Digital to help power his online fundraising effort. In the last election cycle, Blue State Digital helped former Vermont governor Howard Dean bring in a flood of low-dollar online donations that catapulted him into the spotlight.

Clinton, who can roll over more than $11 million from her Senate race last year, has a huge, traditional network in place -- headed by the veteran Clinton finance guru, Terence R. McAuliffe -- and her husband, perhaps the party's biggest fundraising draw. On Sunday, Bill Clinton hosted a 1,000-person gala at the Sheraton in New York; he also attended last night's event (minimum donation: $1,000) at the Marriott Wardman Park. In between, the former president was scheduled to attend a fundraising reception at the home of Sheila and Jay Kaplowitz in Philadelphia.

"Just as she is exceeding expectations everywhere she is going politically, we'd all like to exceed expectations when it comes to fundraising," said Steve Grossman, a major Clinton fundraiser in Boston. He said Hillary Clinton, like Obama, is bringing in new donors every day.

After an intimate "friend-raising" dinner at the home of Elaine and Gerry Schuster in Boston in February, Clinton supporters are preparing for a much larger gathering on March 30 -- just under the wire for first-quarter filing. The campaign has asked donors to send checks in advance so they can be applied to the March 31 tally.

Both Clinton and Obama are expected to hold fundraisers in Las Vegas later this week.

In a significant change, strategists on both sides of the aisle agree, Democratic contenders could wind up with more money than their Republican counterparts.

Still, GOP benchmarks exist. The campaigns of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney have said publicly that they hope to collect $75 million to $100 million by the end of the year.

Early on, Romney impressed insiders by collecting more than $6 million in a single call-athon day in Boston, but one strategist said he has not heard much since from the former governor. "Either he's gotten all the money he's going to get or they've got so much money they don't need any more," the strategist said. Romney is staying active on the fundraising circuit, with 20 events scheduled this month.

Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Romney, refused to offer a concrete goal for the quarter, adding: "Everybody recognizes that fundraising totals should be reflective of the national polls. In the national polls, we are in third place."

Giuliani may have the most to gain -- or lose -- with his first-quarter showing, and he and his inner circle of fundraisers are acting like it. One Republican operative said that Paul Singer, a pioneer in hedge-fund investing and a Giuliani backer, is personally making calls to potential donors in New York and Washington, putting his own capital on the line to round up cash.

Allies of McCain say he got a late start on raising money because he did not make a definitive decision on his candidacy until this month. McCain had been unofficially running for months, if not years, before that announcement. His first major event was on March 2 in Phoenix, and was the first in a series of "Exchange of Ideas" fundraisers in which the crowd is allowed to question the candidate. A week later, a second "Exchange" fundraiser was staged in New York, where former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger spoke.

Bush, an incumbent running without significant primary opposition, raised $36 million in the first six months of 2003. His campaign began fundraising in earnest only in early March.

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