Platinum Politics

Obama's up; McCain's down. That's the early message to come out on the presidential candidates' second-quarter fundraising.

Barack Obama raised an eye-popping $31 million for the Democratic primary season—half again more than Hillary Rodham Clinton's $21 million. On the Republican side, John McCain was coming off a disappointing $13 million first quarter. His second-quarter take? Worse, at only $11 million. The McCain campaign is now making severe spending cutbacks.

This is an anti-establishment year, and Obama is running as an outsider. He's introducing himself to Iowa voters with a television ad in which a Harvard Law School professor describes the senator from Illinois as "someone who could have written his ticket on Wall Street" but instead took "all of the talent and all of the learning and decided to devote it to the community and to making people's lives better."

Obama is raising money from small contributors, more than 250,000 of them. "In the first quarter, 90 percent of our donations were $100 or less, because we don't take PAC money and we don't take federal lobbyists' money," he said in New Hampshire. Obama's legions of small contributors are an indicator of grassroots support. John Dickerson, chief political correspondent of Slate, told CNN, "You get stories of people who come to these Obama events and say, 'I haven't much been interested in politics. Here, I'll give you the money out of my handbag.' "

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Unlike in his last presidential campaign, McCain started out as the GOP's establishment candidate, running in a party that usually nominates the establishment candidate. He made peace with his old rival, George W. Bush, just as the president's ship was starting to go down. His alliance with Bush on immigration was costly. In a conference call with reporters, the McCain campaign last week acknowledged that the immigration battle hurt its ability to raise money. "We certainly wouldn't be straight with you if we told you it didn't have an impact," campaign strategist John Weaver said. He resigned from the campaign on July 10 along with campaign manager Terry Nelson.

McCain is trying to reposition himself to run as he did in 2000, when he was the anti-establishment candidate. "John McCain is the Republican change candidate in a change election cycle," Weaver told reporters last week. But unlike in 2000, a Republican is in the White House. Can a Republican successfully run as the candidate of change this time? McCain's strategists say they think so. They talk about a "liberated" John McCain, liberated from Washington politics. "We let spending get out of control. We presided over the largest increase in the size of government since the Great Depression," the senator from Arizona admonished his party at last month's New Hampshire debate.

One reason McCain's new strategy might work is that the Republican establishment doesn't really have a candidate to rally around. Conservatives have problems with both Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. And Fred Thompson's conservative credentials are already under challenge.

But McCain's problems aren't small. Democrats are angry with him because of his support for the war in Iraq. Republicans are angry with him because of his stand on immigration.

Meanwhile, the second-quarter fundraising figures reveal an amazing level of voter involvement in the 2008 contest, compared with the past three presidential elections. In the second quarter of 1995, candidates raised a combined $34.1 million. In the second quarter of 1999, they raised $55.3 million. And in the second quarter of 2003, they reached $65.9 million. In the second quarter of this year, the top six candidates alone (the three leaders in each party) pulled in $110.7 million. "This is a record-breaking amount of money, and a record-breaking cycle," noted Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "This will be like no other presidential election before."

Moreover, for the first time on record, Democratic candidates are topping Republicans in the money chase. The top three Democrats raised $68.5 million this quarter, while the top three Republicans raised $42.2 million. Rank-and-file Democrats are more energized.

In the end, both parties' nominees are likely to have all the money they need to run strong national campaigns. It's not the difference in dollars that matters most. It's the difference in motivation and involvement that the dollars reveal.