The 2008 presidential campaign is off to a roaring start. Altogether, candidates raised nearly $130 million in the first quarter of 2007. That dwarfs the $27.6 million raised in the first quarter of 1999, the last time both parties had competitive races.
Democratic candidates rang up about $78 million, much more than the $51 million raised by Republicans. Washington Post reporter Dan Balz, who has been covering the campaign, sees the money as an indicator of the Democrats' enthusiasm. "If you have been in Iowa or New Hampshire since the midterm election," Balz says, "what you get is a sense of hunger and anticipation. Democrats would like to have the 2008 election tomorrow if they could do it."
The first-quarter fundraising totals have opened up the races in both parties. Who is the front-runner on the Republican side? That question is now harder to answer. In the view of Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, "Right now, there is no front-runner.... It's wide open here in South Carolina." The front-runner was supposed to be Sen. John McCain of Arizona, but he is no longer first in the polls. McCain's fundraising total was the lowest among the three leading Republican candidates and the three leading Democrats.
Republicans have a history of nominating the heir apparent: George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000. This time, McCain has worked hard to make himself look like the heir apparent. So what's the problem? David Winston, an unaffiliated Republican consultant, said, "He's creating two McCains: the McCain of 2000 and then this McCain who will do anything to get elected in 2008. The personality the voters liked was the McCain of 2000."
Both former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are Washington outsiders. That may be why Romney is the front-runner in Republican fundraising while Giuliani is the front-runner in the polls. "It's time to have somebody go to Washington who knows how to change things for the better," Romney said. Change? Romney's a Republican! But Republicans may be looking for change, what with the midterm election results and George W. Bush's continuing unpopularity. McCain, the Washington insider, can no longer claim to be the candidate of change. In Winston's view, "He's beginning to turn into Bob Dole.... He looks like the candidate of the past, not the candidate of the future."
The McCain campaign maintains that Giuliani is getting a bounce from his celebrity and his candidacy announcement. McCain will restart his run with a series of policy speeches followed by an official campaign proclamation on April 25, when he'll try to generate a bounce of his own.
On the Democratic side, the fact that Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois nearly matched Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York in total contributions proved that his campaign is no pickup team. Obama contends that "the money follows" the candidates with the best messages. He is strongly anti-war on Iraq, but he also appeals to a longing for unity in the country. That's a rare combination. And it seems to be working.
The first quarter tends to be easy pickings for fundraisers. The second quarter is when the going gets tough. Candidates need to show sustainability. Obama looks well positioned to do that: He had twice as many contributors as Clinton, and his gave smaller amounts. He can more easily go back to them for more money.
But Clinton has some advantages. In Balz's view, Obama "is trying to energize a group of people who don't necessarily always participate in the process but who are hungry for something different. [Clinton] is going more for what you would call the core Democratic constituencies, who often have been instrumental in helping someone win the nomination."
Right now, only about a third of Republicans and Democrats favor the front-runners in their parties, Giuliani and Clinton. Many polls have shown noncandidate Al Gore running third among Democrats and noncandidate Newt Gingrich or noncandidate Fred Thompson coming in third among Republicans. Voters seem open to new choices.
That's especially true of Republicans. In last month's CBS News/New York Times poll, 57 percent of Republicans nationwide said they want more options. Among Democrats, however, 57 percent said they're satisfied with their current choices.