Second-quarter fund-raising reports released yesterday gave Vice President Gore a double dose of bad news: He now faces a serious primary challenge, and if he clears that hurdle, he must confront the long-term prospect of competing with a Republican rival who so far has demonstrated extraordinary fund-raising abilities.
Former senator Bill Bradley, already positioned as the only alternative to Gore for the Democratic nomination, collected $7.5 million over the past three months, to Gore's estimated $9 million. That impressive effort puts Bradley on track to meet his goal of pulling in between $20 million and $25 million by the end of the year and ensures he will have ample money to compete in the early nominating contests.
Gore's chief Republican rival, George W. Bush, already has raised more money -- an astonishing $36.2 million -- than he is allowed to spend in the primaries if he plans to receive federal matching funds. With so much money already in hand, it seems nearly certain he will forgo matching funds so he can spend unlimited amounts throughout the election.
In between visits with corporate executives in Manhattan yesterday, Gore said he was satisfied with the estimated $18.2 million he raised in the first half of 1999. But he hinted -- and his aides asserted more firmly -- that his campaign will attempt to portray Bush as a man of privilege relying on special-interest money to fuel his candidacy.
"I believe in campaign finance reform," Gore told reporters, obliquely referring to the likelihood that Bush will opt out of the federal system.
The disappointing fund-raising developments came sandwiched between other ominous signs for Gore. In recent weeks, his campaign message has been mostly overshadowed by the side drama of Gore's attempts to distance himself from the personal morals of President Clinton and whether that has caused tensions between the two men.
"We're losing the PR game," said one Gore adviser.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, two prominent Democrats, Sens. Bob Kerrey (Neb.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y.), were considering whether to endorse Bradley, said an aide to one of the two senators. Both lawmakers recently met with Bradley to discuss that possibility.
The public face of the Gore campaign, deputy chairwoman Marla Romash, suggested Bradley had peaked financially: "Bradley had about as good a quarter as he's going to have."
But privately Gore supporters were more circumspect.
"Bradley raised almost eight [million dollars] this time and we did about nine [million]," one Gore fund-raiser said. "That's what the campaign is panicking about."
Anthony Corrado, a campaign finance expert at Colby College, said Bradley will have the resources to get his message out, and because Bradley is the only alternative to Gore, he will be able to wage a lower-cost campaign.
Although national polls show the vice president well ahead in the nomination contest, a survey last month in New Hampshire gave Gore just an 11-point lead over Bradley and a new Boston Globe poll indicates the two are in a statistical dead heat in Massachusetts.
Referring to Gore, Boston Democratic consultant Mary Ann Marsh said: "It doesn't seem like the guy can get a break. He really needs to break away and change the dynamic; he needs a landscape-altering event."
The Gore team hopes to get a financial boost in the fall when Clinton hits the money circuit on the vice president's behalf. Yet the one mail solicitation Clinton sent this spring fell far short of expectations, according to two sources inside the Gore campaign.
Even assuming Gore gets past Bradley, the fund-raising reports indicate Bush will have so much money that he can start focusing on the general election much sooner than Gore.
"The thing that is anxiety-provoking is this accelerated general election we've been thrust into by George W. Bush's huge fund-raising capacity and his ability to dominate the Republican field," said California Democrat Bill Carrick, expressing fears Bush will be able to target Gore far earlier in the campaign.
In 1996, Robert J. Dole secured the GOP nomination but found himself with less than $2 million for the critical five-month stretch leading up to his convention. The Clinton-Gore team, with no primary opposition, squirreled away about $19 million and spent the money relentlessly attacking Dole on the airwaves.
As a result, Dole curtailed his travel and ran no advertisements, said his former campaign manager Scott Reed. "But the worst part was it put a cloud over the campaign that was very difficult to get out from underneath until we got our money at the convention."
One Gore strategist, mulling that very problem, said yesterday that he worries Bush will be so well-financed that he will start targeting key general election states such as New Jersey, Ohio and California as early as March.
"I don't know how we counteract that," he said. "Can we blow the caps and can we get away with it when we have a primary opponent talking about campaign finance reform?"
Romash argued that Gore and Bush are on equal footing because both are about halfway to meeting their fund-raising goals.
"Republicans almost always have more money," she said, acknowledging that was not the case in 1996. "Democrats win because they have better ideas and stronger candidates."
CAPTION: In New York, Vice President Gore talks with Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin before announcing new bank program.
The Money Chase
Here are the approximate amounts the presidential campaigns said they had raised in the first half of 1999.
In millions of dollars
McCain $ 4.3
Bauer $ 3.4
Dole $ 3.4
Quayle $ 3.3
Forbes $ 2.7
Buchanan $ 2.5
Alexander $ 2.0
Kasich $ 1.6
Smith $ 1.0