MUCH HAS BEEN said about the earlier-than-ever start to the presidential campaign. Now the talk is about an earlier-than-ever finish, at least on the Republican side. Last week, two candidates pulled out: Sen. Bob Smith, who pulled all the way out of his party, and Rep. John Kasich, who by contrast delivered a fawning endorsement cum job application to the frontrunner. The campaigns of three other candidates -- Dan Quayle, Lamar Alexander and Gary Bauer -- all have more debts than assets on hand. The question is whether the fight will be over before a single Republican casts a vote.

All this is a result of George W. Bush's phenomenal success at projecting an aura of inevitability and invincibility. He has racked up endorsements from most of the Republican establishment. More to the point, his campaign has $30 million in the bank, so much more than all of his rivals that he seems to be playing in a different league.

It has become a truism that money plays too big a role in politics, and it's a truism that becomes truer every day. Politicians at all levels complain about the time they must spend pleading for funds, often from people and companies that will have favors to ask after the election. It's almost impossible to defeat an incumbent member of Congress. Now, with Congress having failed to approve any reforms, and with Mr. Bush and Steve Forbes opting to forgo federal matching funds, and thus also any spending limits, money will talk louder than ever.

But it's not entirely true, as a first glance at the Bush campaign might suggest, that money inevitably works against competition. Mr. Bush may yet stumble; and his early success reflects many factors, including the weakness of many of his rivals, his masterful pre-campaign and the Republican desire to fix on a winner as early as possible. There always have been marginal candidates who dropped out before really getting started.

Moreover, the Democratic side shows that campaign finance can cut both ways. Vice President Gore started out with as many presumptive advantages as Mr. Bush, or more. He racked up the same kind of establishment endorsements and was expected to sail to an early fund-raising lead. But Bill Bradley's ability to stay close in the money game has altered the conventional wisdom about Mr. Gore's easy path to nomination.

Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Bradley have succeeded in part because party activists believe they might do well in the general election -- might appeal to actual voters, that is. That's always been part of the calculation, too. But the early calculations haven't always been right; sometimes the voters surprise. The Republican field in particular this year offers a wide range of viewpoints and a great variety of experience. It doesn't seem unduly sentimental to hope that at least a few voters will have a chance to weigh that field, and to demand some specific policy positions from the frontrunner, before the nomination battle is wrapped up.