Clinton leads in the money race

WASHINGTON – Hillary Rodham Clinton raises nearly $3 million in a single event and husband Bill pleads for more. John McCain publicly frets about falling financially behind.

With the first quarter of fundraising ending Saturday, the presidential campaigns are working overtime to make sure they don’t get tagged as losers in the money race.

“Money in the off year has never been more important than in this presidential cycle,” said Michael Toner, a former Federal Election Commission chairman.

In a message to supporters last week, Bill Clinton stressed the importance of posting high fundraising totals in the first quarter.

“The [financial] report her campaign files will set the tone for the rest of the year, and it is absolutely critical to her success,” he wrote, just days after he headlined a $2.7 million Washington fundraiser for her.

Official campaign totals place her fundraising for just last week at $6 million, but that number could underestimate sums raised in New York and California. And by all accounts, the Democratic front-runner will lead all candidates in first-quarter fundraising. Some rival camps, eager to boost expectations for the New York senator, suggest her overall contributions could reach up to $40 million.

Campaigning in California, former Sen. John Edwards said neither he nor any other candidate could match Clinton’s fundraising juggernaut, but, “I will have enough money

to be heard.”

Only Clinton’s campaign knows the extent of her fundraising. Her main Democratic challengers simply want to stay within reach.

“If the press reports that Hillary has raised a lot of money, people are going to yawn and change the channel – big deal,” said Wade Byrd, a North Carolina lawyer and fundraiser for Edwards. “But if we can stay in the game, now that’s news and we’re going to stay in the game.”

Sen. Barack Obama is expected to come in behind Clinton, perhaps at about $20 million, helped in part by a significant online donor base. Obama also has attracted big name contributors, including billionaire investor Warren Buffett. Edwards is likely to fall in third place.

“I know how hard I am working to raise money and I know how hard people are working to help me raise money,” Clinton said in an interview yesterday with The Associated Press in Iowa. “… The amount of time we have to spend really undermines the political debate and dialogue. We should be out talking to people.”

The big numbers will get a boost because several candidates also have been raising money for the general election campaign, in case they choose to bypass the public financing system. The Federal Election Commission last month said presidential candidates could raise money now for the general election campaign and could later return it if they choose to accept money from the taxpayer-financed presidential election fund.

That is bound to artificially increase the amount of money raised this quarter. One Clinton fundraiser estimated that 25 percent of the contributions at one of her fundraisers was for the general election.

Among Republicans, the picture is less predictable. McCain, the early front-runner, has indicated in recent days that his fundraising totals are falling short of his goals.

“I haven’t done a good enough job,” he said at a news conference yesterday in Dallas. “We’re ramping it up on the fundraising.”

In New Hampshire Saturday, he said he would “pay a price for it because we got off to a late start.” In the midst of a campaign tour, he said: “I enjoy this kind of politics more than I enjoy raising money.”