Diving Deeper Into the Money Bin

The presidential campaign fundraising numbers for the first quarter of the year are mostly, though hardly all, in. This is purportedly "the First Primary" of the campaign.

But that's hardly likely. For a variety of reasons, including the importance of fame in a front-loaded presidential nomination campaign in which candidates can become brands. Plus a flowering and fragmenting media environment. Take these factors together and the impact of TV advertising, the main use of campaign money, is significantly diminished.

Let's take the Republican side first, which most easily refutes the notion. Mitt Romney is the leader -- John McCain's numbers are below expectations at $12.5 million -- raising over $5 million more than Rudy Giuliani in the quarter, some $20 million to the former New York mayor's $15 million. (Giuliani raised about another $2 million starting out in December.)

Romney is stalling out in terms of voter appeal. He already ran TV ads in several states which failed to move his numbers. He started out way behind Giuliani and McCain and has fallen further behind in the polls. In addition, Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich, neither of whom has announced and neither of whom are raising money yet for a campaign, easily eclipse Romney. We also don't know how much cash on hand Romney has left, but his campaign is said to be a big spender.

So the "winner" of this notional "First Primary" is actually falling further behind with voters. Also, we don't know how much money he has left in his campaign account. We won't have to know that legally for another two weeks.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton reported a very big number, $36 million. Of that, however, $10 million was transferred over from her U.S. Senate campaign account. That means she raised $26 million during the first quarter itself. But some of that can only be used in the general election. How much did she raise for the primary campaigns? We don't know. We also don't know how much cash she has left on hand.

Barack Obama hasn't said yet how much money he's raised. (Legally, he doesn't have to until April 15th.) He and his team are probably waiting for the hooraw around Clinton's first big number to die down and some other facts to come out.

Word in the Democratic Party is that Obama raised upwards of $20 million in the first quarter, almost all for the primary campaign. That would put him in the same ballpark as Clinton. Although she also transferred another $10 million from her Senate campaign account. But we don't yet know how much she's spent.

Then there's John Edwards, who continues to hang in there as a serious challenger despite Obama's emergence as the media phenom of the Democratic field. He raised $14 million in the quarter, nearly as much as Giuliani.

The second tier Democrats seem to be doing better than the second tier Republicans. Best of the second tier in both parties is Democrat Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor and former UN ambassador and energy secretary, who raised $6 million and has over $5 million left. He's looking to break through in Nevada, the second-in-the nation contest after Iowa.

The notional "money primary" looks somewhat more important for the Democrats than the Republicans, especially if Obama really is relatively close to Clinton in first quarter money that can actually be used in the primaries. That could be a blow to her in terms of the expectations game, another of the intellectual constructs the press likes to employ. (She was "expected" to do wildly better in fundraising, and perhaps did not.)

But while Obama has been doing well with big rally speeches, and may have done very well with fundraising, he's actually coming up behind when he and Clinton and the other Democratic candidates appear together.

He skipped the first forum of the Democratic campaign, in late February in Carson City, Nevada. And when he did show at the next Nevada presidential forum, late last month in Las Vegas, he was much more vague and tentative than Clinton, who wowed the crowd, and Edwards, who was much more substantive.

Similar tales come from several joint appearances before major unions, with Clinton reportedly wowing the labor crowds and Obama coming off more diffidently, far more than one would suppose from his hugh public rallies.

So if Obama is coming up in the money primary, he's coming down in the performance primary. And Clinton has a strong core of support, especially among women.