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The $75 Million Woman

(By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

The campaign launched the finished version of its Web site on Feb. 10, and five days later the first e-mail went out, timed with Obama's formal announcement in Springfield, Ill. Close to $500,000 came gushing in.

"It was overwhelming," Burdick said. "You just don't see that strong of a response. I anticipated we could build a program and it would be good, but there was just no way to possibly gauge that it was going to be that big."

Solomont recalled thinking that while the appeals he had made on behalf of Bill Clinton were aimed at wealthy donors, this effort could target just about anyone. "We had decided we weren't going to focus just on raising big bucks," Solomont said. "We were going to go after people paying $2,300 but also students paying $23."

After having initial success with a low-dollar event in Kentucky, they decided to try a Friday night kickoff event on April 20 at an arena in Boston, where they would open the doors to as many people as they could draw. Solomont was nervous -- "It was a gamble," he said. When the doors opened, they had a line, blocks long, waiting to get in. In all, 5,700 people turned out, and more than $750,000 was raised.

"I think that was the moment for us," Solomont said. "I think people really got a sense that we could do this differently."

Keeping It Going

Obama's campaign offices are spread across the entire 11th floor of a Chicago high-rise. The finance team's desks are scattered around a Ping-Pong table. Tabloid headlines -- "Record Haul for Obama," "Run for the Money" -- are taped to the walls.

As the summer wore on, Smoot sat in the middle, tracking dozens of events around the country on her laptop. In a rolling series of phone calls with her regional fundraisers, she pushed and prodded them to hit their goals, then updated her spreadsheets so she could keep tabs on the quarter's target.

By mid-August, she had a good sense that Obama would have another $20 million when the third quarter ended on Sept. 30. What she did not know was that Clinton, for the first time, would have raised decidedly more.

"I don't like getting beat," Smoot said last week.

The impact of the latest numbers remains unclear. Clinton has used that successful quarter to solidify her position as the front-runner -- a move that could persuade fence-sitting donors to get on board and produce an even more bountiful fourth quarter. Obama's money team, meanwhile, will try again to capitalize on the continuing grass-roots interest in his candidacy, and a pool of smaller-dollar donors who continue to have room under the legal limits to give.

Steve McMahon, a Democratic political strategist, said it has at least become clear that neither candidate will be able to substantially outspend the other as the two campaigns face voters for the first time. Both camps say they have enough to compete not only in New Hampshire and Iowa, but on Feb. 5, when they will compete in costly primaries in several large states.

McMahon thinks Obama's success will no longer boil down to how much money he has. "At this point, it's all about strategy," he said. With Smoot's help, Obama "achieved critical mass."

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