Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who was widely expected to lead the Democratic presidential race for campaign money, yesterday reported raising $7 million through March, or about $400,000 less than the sum collected by Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.).

The fundraising announcements by Kerry and Edwards touched off early reassessments among party insiders, with some wondering whether Edwards can build momentum from his surprise showing and move higher in the campaign pecking order -- largely at Kerry's expense.

"Kerry worked hard to develop an image of the frontrunning national campaign," said Democratic consultant David Axelrod, who is not tied to any candidate. "Part of that mystique is being the frontrunner in fundraising, because it is a reflection of viability. Edwards threw a little bit of a wrench into that part of the plan."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) reported raising $3 million through March 31. His aides sought to put the comparatively low figure in the best light, saying Lieberman started late and raised 70 percent of his money, or $2.1 million, in March alone.

"I'm tremendously proud of our growing strength, despite a late start," said Craig Smith, Lieberman's campaign manager. "Once our fundraising operation was in place, we hit our stride."

Steve Rosenthal, former political director of the AFL-CIO, said, "Kerry and Edwards are both very impressive, but it's a little surprising where Lieberman is, given his national face." Lieberman, the party's vice presidential nominee in 2000, has touted his fundraising abilities.

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who entered the race as a long shot, reported raising $2.6 million through March 31. Dean's outspoken criticism of the war in Iraq helped him tap the party's antiwar community, which is especially conducive to online solicitations. The Dean campaign reported raising about $750,000 through the Internet, with $400,000 received in the last week of March. The Kerry campaign reported raising $450,000 over the Internet.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), unlike the other major candidates, declined to provide estimates of first-quarter fundraising. A campaign spokesman said officials were determined to wait until they can produce the most accurate figures possible.

Federal law requires the candidates to report first-quarter campaign finance details by April 15. President Bush does not have to file a report because he has not formally announced his reelection bid.

Democratic strategist David Eichenbaum said Edwards's fundraising totals will provide a clear boost to the North Carolinian's campaign. "He has not been on a roll recently," Eichenbaum said. "For those who weren't sure whether to take him all that seriously, I think it will cause them to take another look."

"This demonstrates that he's got a broad reach across the country," said Donna Brazile, who was Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000. "If Edwards continues at this pace, the Kerry people better wake up and redouble their efforts."

Brazile called Edwards and Dean "the two shockers" in the preliminary (and incomplete) reports released by the campaigns. She said the first-quarter figures showed Dean's potential to compete with the other, better-known candidates. "If he keeps it up, he'll be a very viable candidate," she said.

But another Democratic strategist noted that Dean trails Edwards, Kerry, Lieberman and probably Gephardt. "Dean doesn't get extra points [merely] because he said he was going to raise $1.5 million and got $2.6 million," the strategist said. "He's still behind. . . . You can't buy ads with 'beating expectations.' "

Lieberman raised less than half as much as Edwards and Kerry and will likely end up fourth behind Gephardt. But a senior Democrat said Lieberman still had significant potential to post a far bigger number in June. "There's a network of people who will support Joe Lieberman who nobody else has any access to," this Democrat said.

Democratic Party activists say a presidential candidate will have to raise $15 million to $20 million by the end of 2003 to be competitive in the flood of early caucuses and primaries in 2004. The Democratic nomination could well be decided by mid-February or early March, months before the July convention in Boston.

Some candidates are contemplating rejection of public matching money, which would free them from a spending limit of about $44 million in the primaries. A candidate considering such a step probably would have to raise at least $30 million by the end of this year, strategists say.

Kerry campaign manager Jim Jordan defended his candidate's financial performance. "We've raised more money, acquired more donors, put more in the bank, and built a stronger political foundation than I thought would be possible 90 days ago," he said. Kerry has built what many view as the strongest direct-mail base. Jordan praised Edwards, saying the North Carolinian's early fundraising success shows that "he will be able to build and fully fund a presidential campaign. Senator Edwards's number was very impressive, but not necessarily surprising."

The biggest unknown in the Edwards report is how much of his money came from fellow trial lawyers and whether that network can continue to produce money at the pace of the first quarter. Campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said: "Money begets money. Edwards' ability to raise this level, we hope, will convince other donors of the viability of his campaign."

Among the other Democratic presidential hopefuls, former senator Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio), said they will release fundraising figures later this month.

Meanwhile, several Democratic and Republican party organizations have reported first-quarter fundraising totals. They suggest that the nation's new campaign finance law, known as McCain-Feingold, hasn't slowed the drive for political cash but it has increased the cost.

The National Republican Congressional Committee collected $21.1 million through March 31, more than it raised in the first quarter of 2001. It spent heavily on telemarketing, however, and had $1.8 million in the bank after reducing its debt to $2.5 million.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee declined to release its figures, although several well-placed lawmakers said it had raised between $7 million and $8 million for the quarter, and had more than $2 million on hand. About $2 million in donations came from House members.

The Democratic National Committee declined to release numbers. The Republican National Committee said it raised $29.3 million through March 31, leaving it with $16 million in cash and no debt.

Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.