By Chris Cillizza
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 4, 2007 3:20 PM
Amid a sea of seasoned politicians, two new faces stole the headlines this week in the critical chase for campaign cash.
Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) announcement today that he had raised $25 million during the first three months of the year rocked the Democratic field, just as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's $21 million haul shook up the Republican side a few days ago. Most of Obama's money and all of Romney's take can be spent in the primaries next year, giving the two a huge advantage over some of their rivals whose funds must be divided between their primary and general election campaigns.
Obama and Romney have each won just a single election to statewide office and have spent a combined six years in those posts. Statewide and national polls have shown Obama running second or third behind Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards in the Democratic race, while Romney on the Republican side had been mired in the single digits before his recent surge in popularity in New Hampshire and Iowa.
So, why then were they able to outshine far better known political commodities like Clinton (N.Y.) and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain?
"We are coming off of back-to-back eight year runs in the White House," said Alex Vogel, a GOP lobbyist not affiliated with any of the current presidential candidates. "It makes sense that the American people are interested and enamored with new brands."
This is the first time since 1952 that neither party has an incumbent president or vice president seeking the nomination of their party. The wide-open nature of the field coupled with the presence of several high-profile candidates on each side has created an excitement and interest among voters that has not been seen in recent political history.
In a bid to capitalize on that hunger for change, Romney and Obama both have played up their credentials as outsiders -- promising voters a departure from the status quo in Washington.
For Obama, a charismatic speaker, that means a laser-like focus on his long-held opposition to the war in Iraq. The war has proved to be the single most animating issue for many Democratic primary voters who are disappointed in Clinton for supporting the 2002 use-of-force resolution against Iraq and who has not been forceful enough in her more recent condemnation of the conflict.
Romney's message is less issue-centric. Instead, the former businessman and governor offers a broad call for "innovation and transformation" that, he subtly suggests, has been missing from his party of late.
"Even as America faces a new generation of challenges, the halls of government are clogged with petty politics and stuffed with peddlers of influence," Romney said in his announcement speech.
The surprising financial strength of Obama and Romney seems to show that their messages are resonating in dramatic fashion.
In some ways, Obama's campaign finance success is more surprising than that of Romney's. Romney was the immediate past chairman of the Republican Governors Association as well as a co-founder of Bain Capital and the head of the 2002 Salt Lake City winter Olympics, which were all lucrative fundraising avenues. Obama, in contrast, arrived in the Senate in 2004 with a skeleton of a national fundraising operation and was forced to build one on the fly after formally announcing his candidacy just ten weeks ago.
Obama's rapid financial growth, fueled by more than 100,000 donors and $7 million raised via the Internet, has forced a recalibration of the handicapping for the Democratic competition as Obama proved to be a much stronger fundraiser than many assumed, said several party sources without ties to any of the candidates.
"Today's announcement is a complete game changer," said Stephanie Cutter, who served as communications director for Democratic Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. "Obama exceeded all expectations, and demonstrated that his message and candidacy has taken hold and has significant staying-power because he's appealing to new donors and grassroots' support."
Prior to Obama's decision to enter the race, Clinton had been expected to enjoy a broad financial advantage over her rivals for the Democratic nomination. Her perceived financial superiority was considered key to her status as the frontrunner -- especially in light of decision by officials of large states like California and New York that are expensive to campaign in to move up their primaries to next Feb. 5.
The Clinton campaign had been talking up Obama's fundraising numbers for the past several weeks in hopes of diminishing the impact of today's announcement. "I would expect Senator Obama is going to have a comparable amount of money to what we have," Clinton finance chairman Terry McAuliffe said during a Sunday conference call with reporters.
Patti Solis Doyle, Clinton's campaign manager, echoed that sentiment in a statement put out by the campaign after Obama's fundraising figures were made public today.
"We are thrilled with our historic fundraising success and congratulate Senator Obama and the entire Democratic field on their fundraising, which demonstrates the overwhelming desire for change in our country," said Solis Doyle.
On the Republican side, Romney's showing drew kudos from a wide variety of political operatives who praised not just the eye-popping total but also the campaign discipline it took to raise such enormous sums.
"I think the Governor surprised more than a few folks and not just by the amount of money he raised, but the organizational ability it takes to raise it," said Chris LaCivita, a leading Republican consultant.
Romney's success has already forced McCain to alter his approach to fundraising. Former House member Tom Loeffler of Texas, who is serving as McCain's finance chairman, will now oversee the entire fundraising operation. The campaign has also created McCain's 200 (for donors who gather $200,000 or more in contributions) and McCain's 100 ($100,000 or more) to provide some rigor to its bundling program. "There are now new metrics of accountability in place," said McCain communications director Brian Jones.
McCain is also moving quickly to re-establish his policy credentials with a series of speeches over the next three weeks. He'll deliver an Iraq-centered speech at the Virginia Military Institute next Wednesday and will follow that up with an address on economic policy and government waste in Memphis, Tennessee on April 16 . A third speech, also focused on domestic policy, is set for April 23 although no location has yet been chosen.
The question for McCain is whether this reshuffling of the deck within his organization and revised message can resurrect the image that led him to the precipice of the Republican nomination in 2000.
Romney is working to keep McCain on the mat, announcing today that Doug Struyk and David Tjepkes, two Iowa state representatives who had previously signed onto McCain's Straight Talk America PAC, were switching allegiance to Romney. The former governor is also back on the television airwaves in Iowa and New Hampshire with an ad touting his fiscal discipline.
"In Washington, the echo chamber of what's happening there and the constant bang and clatter from inside 'The Beltway' leads everyone to believe that it's the center of the universe," said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden.
"There's a frustration with the status quo mentality, and since Governor Romney's message is one of change that essentially says 'Hey, Washington needs a fresh set of eyes and new ideas,' we're seeing a greater degree of support that agrees with Governor Romney's approach," he added.