The abrupt withdrawal of a cash-starved candidate is a common occurrence in presidential elections. But something altogether unprecedented is happening in the 2000 race: The Darwinian process in which only the financially fittest survive is taking place months before any votes are cast.

The 2000 primary season is earlier and more compressed than ever before. Texas Gov. George W. Bush has collected a record $57 million and counting. And the GOP field is being relentlessly winnowed -- in significant part because of other candidates' empty bank accounts.

"The bottom line is money," Republican candidate Elizabeth Dole said as she announced her withdrawal yesterday.

To be sure, Bush also enjoys a huge lead in the polls over Dole and his other rivals, but political activists said his bank account helps enhance that standing even as his front-runner status brings in more cash.

"We're turning the nominating process of both parties into lifestyles of the rich and famous," lamented Republican consultant Ed Gillespie, who worked for Ohio Rep. John R. Kasich's ill-fated presidential bid. "Some very good candidates never even got to the point where voters got to say one way or another how they felt about them."

The unfolding of the 2000 race is making 1996 look tame by comparison. At the time, political analysts bemoaned the shortened primary calendar and declared that the schedule, combined with the expense of modern campaigning, made raising money the "first primary."

This time around, said Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, which advocates campaign finance changes, "This may not be the first primary -- this may be the primary going on in 1999. This campaign is more about money than anything we've ever seen."

In previous years, some candidates were scared off by the demands of fund-raising from even entering the race. But others decided to play the political equivalent of an all-night poker game, staying in as long as they had a few chips to place on the table in Iowa or New Hampshire -- in the hopes of striking it rich after connecting with voters there.

Still, translating electoral success into campaign cash takes time, as Democratic candidate Gary Hart discovered to his dismay after winning the New Hampshire primary in 1984. And the increasing compression of the primary season has made that time lag even more of a factor.

This year marks the first time that candidates have dropped like flies -- five Republicans out of the race so far -- with the Iowa caucuses, the traditional start of the nominating process, still three months away. Former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, for example, managed four years ago to hang in through the first round of primaries in early March. This time around, Alexander didn't make it through the August before the election year, saying there was "no realistic way" to keep going in the face of the Bush juggernaut.

"This is not the same cycle you had in 1995 or 1987 or 1979," said Rick Davis, campaign manager for Arizona Sen. John McCain. "This is a wholly different race going on. When you have a former vice president, a former governor [and Dole] not being able to survive even to the first caucus, it is a bad commentary on the system." The biggest difference is the extraordinary fund-raising success of Bush, who has far outraised his closest rivals. At this point four years ago, Robert J. Dole, the eventual Republican nominee, was leading the money chase with $19 million, but others were in the game: Texas Sen. Phil Gramm with nearly $19 million and Alexander with almost $9 million.

Now, Bush's fund-raising has eclipsed all but Steve Forbes, who is largely self-funded and keeping pace with Bush in terms of campaign spending. Coming in a very distant third is McCain, who has raised just $9.4 million.

"Bush has literally created a vacuum in the Republican Party that has made it impossible for anyone else to breathe," said Colby College political scientist Anthony Corrado. "Money likes to follow the winner in the presidential pre-primary period and he . . . has capitalized on that perception in a way that no candidate ever has before."

For example, Elizabeth Dole raised just $1.7 million in the third quarter, against $20 million for Bush. More telling, said a senior official in the Dole campaign, was the enormous difference in cash on hand between the two candidates, $861,000 for Dole to Bush's $37.7 million. "Perhaps I could handle 2 to 1 or even 10 to 1," Dole said yesterday, "but not 80 to 1."

Ted Welch, a veteran Republican fund-raiser who backed Alexander and is now supporting Bush, said he is "concerned" about having candidates drop out so early. But he viewed Bush's early dominance as "almost a one-time phenomenon" propelled by Bush's campaigning skills and fund-raising base, combined with overwhelming GOP desire to see a Republican in the White House. Republicans "want to have a winner and they believe George Bush is that person," Welch said.

On the Democratic side, Vice President Gore had hoped to pull a Bush on his rivals. But having scared off all but Bill Bradley, Gore is finding himself facing a surprisingly strong political and financial challenge from the former New Jersey senator, who retains an extensive network of supporters from his years in office. Gore has raised almost $25 million to Bradley's $19 million, but Bradley actually has more cash in hand than Gore.

The Democratic race "also shows you the importance of money," Corrado said. "Why was Bill Bradley suddenly being taken so seriously as a contender against Vice President Gore? Because of the fact that he had shown fund-raising prowess and because he demonstrated that he will be able to compete financially with the vice president."

Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.

Campaign Cash

Presidential campaign receipts are more than twice what they were at this point in the last election cycle.

Presidential campaign receipts, in millions, for first three quarters of year before election

1983 $ 18.9

1987 $ 68.9

1991 $ 2.8*

1995 $ 92.0

1999 $196.2

*Intensive fund-raising began in fourth quarter

SOURCE: Federal Election Commission