The record-shattering fund-raising performance of Texas Gov. George W. Bush has created an unprecedented financial disparity with all of his Republican rivals and likely will severely hamper their ability to compete for the party's presidential nomination, party officials said today.
Bush's campaign announced that he has raised $36.25 million so far this year, an amount that far exceeded even the extraordinary expectations that had been set for his campaign. No one in the history of presidential campaigns has come close to raising that much money this quickly and no one has ever raised more during the roughly 18-month nomination cycle than Bush has raised in less than six months.
Only Steve Forbes, a multimillionaire who is mostly self-financing his campaign, will have the money to compete with Bush.
Bush's fund-raising report provided more bad news for the campaign of Vice President Gore. Although Gore has raised more than $18 million so far this year, his only opponent, former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, is raising enough (more than $11 million so far) to mount a serious primary challenge.
But in addition, Gore now must worry about a potential GOP rival in Bush who could start salting money away for the general election earlier than ever and have more resources for the long war.
The Bush campaign's fund-raising pace makes it a virtual certainty that the GOP front-runner will decide to forgo federal matching funds in the primaries, his advisers said. Already, Bush has raised more money than the estimated $33.5 million he could legally spend if he accepts matching funds, and his advisers said he has no intention of returning any money. By refusing to accept matching funds, Bush could exceed the spending limits in such important early states as Iowa and New Hampshire, giving him an additional strategic advantage.
But Bush's fund-raising prowess also has implications for the general election, should he become the nominee. Republican nominee Robert J. Dole was nearly broke by the time he secured the nomination in the spring of 1996 and was significantly outspent by President Clinton's campaign until he began to receive federal funds later in the summer.
Bush, by refusing matching funds, could continue to raise money after he has the nomination and use it to start waging the general election campaign. Gore has decided to accept matching funds, which means he cannot exceed the overall spending limits. If he wins the nomination, but has spent heavily to defeat Bradley, he could face the same problem Dole confronted four years ago.
Gore deputy chairwoman Marla Romash dismissed that concern, calling Bush's contributions "blank checks for a blank slate." She added, "We remain very confident we'll have the resources we need to win in the primary season and win the general election." Other Democrats, however, said Gore may need to rethink whether to accept federal funds.
But it will be Bush's GOP rivals who feel the immediate impact of the fund-raising disparity.
The Bush campaign for weeks would only hint at the record it was to set. On Tuesday, GOP officials who knew the figures told reporters Bush would raise "more than $23 million." Today, when they revealed the record $36.25 million, Bush fund-raisers insisted they had not been coyly trying to lower expectations.
Even after expecting the worst, officials in other campaigns sounded overwhelmed when they heard the news. "Oh my God, that's breathtaking," said Tom Rath, a top adviser to former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander. "What are you going to say? That's phenomenal."
Whether Bush's huge financial support translates into the same level of political support is the next challenge for his campaign. He has scores of endorsements from elected officials, but the voters have yet to be heard from. The first test will come Aug. 14 at a straw poll sponsored by the Iowa Republican Party. The other campaigns will be feeling as much or more pressure to demonstrate their viability at the non-binding poll.
The only other Republican in the race with the money to match Bush is magazine publisher Forbes. Bush campaign officials long have regarded Forbes as a serious threat, primarily because they know he will have the resources to run television ads aimed at the governor in the same way he attacked -- and permanently damaged -- Dole in the 1996 primaries.
"I think it clearly gets narrowed down more and more to a one-on-one race," Forbes campaign manager Bill Dal Col said. "It will be a conservative, Reagan wing versus the Bush wing. . . . We're going to be the idea candidate running on the outside." Forbes, however, remains in single digits in most polls of GOP voters, and other Republicans said that, despite his money, Forbes must demonstrate his political viability.
For the rest of Bush's rivals, the fund-raising gap reflects part of Bush's strategy to close out the nomination as early as possible.
Former vice president Dan Quayle tried to use humor to deflect Bush's news. "George W. Bush's fund-raising total sounds a lot like prosperity without a purpose," he said, referring to a line Bush uses in speeches.
Ari Fleischer, Elizabeth Dole's spokesman, said Bush's financial advantage does not lessen the importance of success in Iowa and New Hampshire. "One of the geniuses of the system is it starts with small states. If this started with California, it might be over," he said. "Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire don't want thousand-dollar givers to in effect become the first primary."
Dole hit the airwaves today, insisting on NBC's "Today" that she is "going to be in the race [and] I'm in it to win." She promised an official announcement in the fall.
Howard Opinsky, spokesman for Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), said Bush's financial advantage creates competition among the rest to become the alternative. "I don't think all of them will be able to survive," Opinsky said, although he was confident McCain would.
Bush said today he was "humbled" by the size of his campaign bank account. "As you can imagine, I'm amazed at the outpouring of support. This is a campaign that has gotten a wide range of people willing to help, people from all around the country."
He was asked to explain it. "A wonderful personality," he joked. Then he described the response he received Tuesday campaigning at a county fair in San Diego. "People are hungry for something," he said. "I'm gratified. It's beyond expectations."
Bush was asked whether he favored changes in a campaign finance system that has left many Americans disillusioned with politics. He said he favored instant disclosure of contributions and elimination of unlimited "soft money" contributions by labor unions and corporations to the national political parties. Bush said he would not restrict individuals' ability to make contributions to parties.
Forbes immediately challenged Bush "to return any and all PAC and special interest money. What George Bush has proven today is not that he can raise money, but that he is inextricably tied to Washington lobbyists and special interests."
Staff writer Susan B. Glasser and staff researcher Ben White in Washington contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Texas Gov. George W. Bush whispers to London Washington, 10, during a "Teach the Teachers" event at an elementary school in Los Angeles.