THE FIRST presidential primary is three months away, but the results from the "money primary" are trickling in already. On Wednesday Elizabeth Dole became the fourth Republican to concede defeat, following Lamar Alexander, Dan Quayle and John Kasich. Mrs. Dole had scheduled more than 100 fund-raising events, but the money had not come. "I can handle 2-to-1 or even 10-to-1," she said, referring to the dollar advantage enjoyed by Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and by the self-financed Steve Forbes. But when the ratio turned out to be more than that, Mrs. Dole bowed out.
But whatever the candidate may say, this defeat is not actually the best occasion to wax indignant about the role of money. True, Mr. Bush is lucky to have inherited his father's generous network of friends, and Mr. Forbes is certainly lucky to have inherited a fortune. But Mrs. Dole, the wife of the last Republican nominee, was not without advantages of her own. The fact that she failed to raise money says something about her candidacy.
More than the other Republicans who have withdrawn so far, Mrs. Dole started out with some chance of success. She was nationally known; she benefited from being the first woman to make a serious run at the White House; she came second after Mr. Bush in some national surveys. But though she spoke out bravely against guns, she was short of ideas. Sen. John McCain, another centrist Republican waging an uphill battle against Mr. Bush, managed to sound bold on issues such as campaign finance and Kosovo. This may help to explain why he persuaded more Americans to contribute money to his efforts.
Still, Mrs. Dole's withdrawal does heighten voters' sense of money's influence in politics and so may fuel debilitating public cynicism. In this sense, it makes campaign reform more urgent. The legislation that the Republican leadership killed in the Senate this week would have done nothing to prevent Mr. Bush from raising as much as he has; nor could it stop Mr. Forbes from spending his own millions. But another kind of reform might have helped: a redrawing of the primary schedule.
If presidential primaries were less condensed, poorly financed candidates could at least survive through the early contests and then hope to raise money for later ones on the strength of a strong performance at the ballot box. Currently there is too little time for that: California, New York and several other states all vote on the same day, and only plutocrats can afford the advertising necessary to be competitive. Both parties acknowledge that this compressed schedule makes it hard for outside candidates to break through, and both are toying with reform. It is time to get serious about it.