Give Me Money…That’s What I Want

For the Democratic presidential field it is a nervous time. In a few weeks the books will close on the 1st quarterly FEC report and reveal each campaign’s fund-raising success from Jan. to March. Soon, the money cards will be naked on the table.

Finance strength is the big yardstick of the invisible primary. A candidate without money trying to convince the press that he is still viable does about as well as a broke gambler asking the pit boss at Caesar’s for a loan..No money, no campaign.

When the 1stQ reports go public in mid-April, there will be a brutal expectations shake up with winners and losers. No wonder each campaign’s henchmen are busily trying to lower expectations by burying each other with false praise about the opposition’s fundraising skills, like: “Joe Lieberman is sooooo good at fundraising he raised an extra 30 million dollars for Gore 2000 without raising a sweat…Edwards’ nervous trial lawyer buddies are writing huge checks to stop medical malpractice reform…Kerry has locked up New York.”

The actual accounting on the reports is tricky. Kerry, Edwards and Gephardt each have millions in pre-Presidential campaign funds they will transfer over to beef up their presidential numbers. This old money is important but it does not signal new fundraising prowess. Look beyond the total money raised to the campaign’s cash on hand. Who is spending their money, who is banking it? Gold-plated campaigns with a big burn rate of overhead won’t have a lot left for vital TV in the early states.

A special Kerry factor to consider is the Ketchup Threat. Since Mrs. Heinz-Kerry has oodles of personal funds from the Heinz ketchup fortune it is often whispered that Sen. Kerry’s campaign can pour on unlimited money if needed. But I wonder. If those funds are so easily available, why is candidate Kerry wasting precious Iowa and New Hampshire days traveling all over the country to raise money? I’m not sure the threatened big ketchup money will get thumped out of the bottle.

One important rule has changed. The contribution limit has been doubled, from $1,000 per person to $2,000, plus a $250 dollar match for qualified candidates. In theory, this should lead to bigger totals. Historical benchmarks? In 1999 sitting VP Al Gore’s 1stQ total was $8.9 million raised, with $6.9 million cash on hand. Bill Bradley beat expectations that year with $4.3 million raised.

My read of the expectations scorecard:

John Kerry ‘s campaign claims frontrunner status. Now he must prove it. Kerry must lead the field in new money.

Joe Lieberman has national stature. He needs to come very close to matching Kerry, or suffer a major defeat.

Howard Dean is the media’s darling of the moment and he needs a nice surprise to sustain interest in his campaign. If Dean can exceed his low expectations he’ll break into the first tier of candidates. That means a respectable $2 million plus total number and at least 600K cash on hand. Lacking that, Dean will stay stuck in the “can’t raise enough to win” muck. (Dark horse note: John McCain’s 1stQ 1999 number was $1.8 million raised, $2 million transferred.)

John Edwards has a strong trial lawyer network. I smell an expectations upset by Edwards, who could hit a homerun and restart his campaign by coming in a strong second. A middling total, however, could start the big slide to the end.

Dick Gephardt has raised millions for others. We’ll find out what he can raise for himself. With $2.4 million to transfer he’ll be around a while, but to stay credible Gephardt needs at least that in new money.

Bob Graham is in a lucky position. His late entry gives him low expectations but his Florida base and strong fund-raising history give him the resources to score a surprise.

This money war is the first pre-primary contest with measurable results. It could draw blood.