THE ENORMOUS amount of money that Texas Gov. George W. Bush was able to raise for his presidential campaign in the first six months of this year -- more than $36 million -- is said to be a sign of his political prowess. No doubt that's so, but that isn't all the vast sum signifies. The wide-open fund-raising that characterized the 1996 presidential campaign was universally regarded as scandalous. The Bush receipts are a further indication that the 1996 results will be dwarfed this time around.

The prevailing wisdom has the Republican presidential nomination already locked up. If so, it can hardly be the governor's positions on the issues that have done the trick, nor his performance vs. his rivals' in debates. There have been no debates; his positions on most of the issues he would face as president remain to be heard. The only contest thus far has been, who can raise the most money for a nominating process that puts a premium on millions of dollars at the front end. It's a race in which the average citizen has little or no part. The candidate hasn't been bought, but if in fact the contest is over, to a large extent the nomination has been.

The Democrats, of course, are playing the same game, and wishing they were keeping up. Vice President Gore has raised a little more than $18 million, nearly as much as the Clinton-Gore reelection effort had raised in setting the previous record by this point in the last campaign. Former senator Bill Bradley made a strong showing for a challenger in raising more than $11 million.

The important thing to remember is that this is only the orderly introduction to the excesses about to occur. The stench in the last campaign, on both sides, involved so-called soft money -- not these regulated sums raised and spent according to law by the candidates themselves but the much larger and less closely regulated additional sums raised and spent on the nominees' behalf by the national parties. The soft money comes in amounts and from sources that the law ostensibly and virtuously forbids. The gloss that it goes to the parties instead of to the candidates is supposed to fix that.

The leading campaign spending bill that again is being held up in Congress would ban soft money. The president, having committed some of the excesses that inspired it, now is for it. So are most Democrats. The Republican hierarchy remains opposed. For all their denunciation of the president's behavior in 1996, the Republicans are the better fund-raisers. Sen. John McCain, a candidate for the Republican nomination, is a sponsor of the soft-money bill and is trying to make reform an issue in the campaign. Good for him, but he and the Democrats need to do it on the Senate floor. The Democrats just forced consideration of managed care reform by threatening to tack it onto every other bill the leadership might try to bring up. Why not the same for a bill to prevent corruption of the legislative process itself?