The unannounced candidates for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination are already engaged in what some call the "first primary" -- a competition to demonstrate their fundraising prowess while spotlighting their opponents' weaknesses.

Al Gore's Leadership '02 PAC, for example, yesterday sent supporters an e-mail noting that Gore had raised $502,482 in "hard money" in the first three months of this year, substantially more than the sum raised by Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle's DASHPAC ($62,158), or Sen. John Edwards's New American Optimists PAC ($187,750). It was, however, less than Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman's Responsibility, Opportunity Community PAC ($642,469).

The Gore missive provoked an outburst in Edwards's camp. "The former vice president has just $181,000 in the bank and raised a measly $502,000," an operative for the North Carolina senator declared.

A Gore aide brushed the comment aside. "We're fine," he said. "Who cares how much they can raise in soft money? You can use exactly zero of that in a presidential campaign. In hard money, Edwards came in second-to-last."

Doubtlessly, the vast majority of Americans are giving hardly a thought to the 2004 election. But to the Democratic hopefuls, the arcane talk of hard and soft money -- and the success or failure of the euphemistically named fundraising committees -- is serious business.

Gore supporters boast about their haul of hard money because a new campaign finance law will ban the raising or spending of "soft money" by the end of this year. Soft money typically comes in unlimited, large donations from corporations, unions and individuals. In the next presidential race, candidates will have to raise and spend hard money -- which is limited to $2,000 per donor and therefore more difficult to amass.

The Edwards and Gore supporters spoke on background, and both were highly selective in the statistics they emphasized. The Edwards campaign, for example, notes that the John Edwards for Senate Committee raised $310,341 in the first quarter of this year, while his PAC raised $471,000 in soft money.

The Gore folks look at those numbers and say that at best, all the Edwards camp has done is raise $498,091 in crucial hard money, less that the $502,482 in hard money raised by Gore's "Leadership '02" PAC.

Meanwhile, candidates for competitive Senate seats have filed their first-quarter reports, showing how much cash they have as this year's congressional contests get underway. Almost universally, incumbents held a strong advantage over challengers.

In Georgia, Sen. Max Cleland (D) reported having more than twice as much money, $3.7 million, as the man hoping to oust him, Rep. C. Saxby Chambliss (R), $1.7 million.

In Missouri, Sen. Jean Carnahan (D) had $3.47 million on hand. The GOP challenger, former representative James Talent, had $2.12 million. In Arkansas, Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R) had $1.82 million; Democrat Mark Pryor had $1.02 million. In South Dakota, Sen. Tim Johnson (D) held $950,335; Rep. John Thune (R) had $614,196.

In Minnesota, Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D) had $2.6 million; former St. Paul mayor Norman Coleman (R) had $1.6 million. In Iowa, Sen. Tom Harkin (D) had $2.5 million; Rep. Greg Ganske (R) had $1.3 million.

Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.), who faces a tough primary challenge from Rep. John E. Sununu (R) -- and, if he survives that, a tough general election contest with Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) -- has $1.5 million, to Sununu's $661,000 and Shaheen's $1.4 million.

In open-seat Senate contests, former presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole (R) had $2.6 million in the North Carolina race. Erskine B. Bowles led Democrats with $1.6 million. Democrats noted that Dole had $398,850 in debts, while Bowles owed $44,794.

In the Senate race in South Carolina, Rep. Lindsay O. Graham (R) had $2.8 million, compared with $1.6 million for former College of Charleston president Alex Sanders (D). In Texas, Democrat Ron Kirk had $1.1 million, far less than the $2.9 million held by Republican John Cornyn.

Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), in foreground at right, meets with Florida Democratic delegates.