Washington — Even though the presidential candidates have just received millions of dollars in federal matching funds, their chief money raisers are striving to bring in more cash. The first three months of this year are a crucial spending time. A strong showing in the primaries can keep the funds flowing in - but it takes full coffers to get there. The campaign staff looks at Super Tuesday, on March 8, as the financial black hole of '88: The candidates have to stretch campaign dollars to buy news-media time in 20 states.
The strategy of most campaigns is to ``raise as much as we can as soon as we can,'' says Fred Stern, press spokesman for Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV.
``It's going to get tougher,'' says Kristin Demong, finance director for Gov. Michael Dukakis. ``This is a wild-card quarter.'' The wild card is how well each campaign does in the primaries. Those perceived as losers will see their donor base dry up.
Although a few campaigns may reach the legal limits set for fund raising, most are struggling for every dollar. ``The politicians always spend more money than they should and the treasurers try to stop it and they don't,'' says Mike Berman, Walter Mondale's treasurer during the 1984 campaign.
Since the 1976 election, eligible presidential candidates have qualified for federal funds on a dollar-for-dollar basis for individual contributions up to $250. Last week the United States Treasury made the initial $28.7 million distribution of funds through the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Some campaigns couldn't wait and had already borrowed against the matching funds.
Most candidates have enough money on hand to spend the legal limits in Iowa (about $775,000) and New Hampshire (about $460,000). Alexander Haig Jr. and Sen. Albert Gore Jr., however, have already announced they will bypass Iowa and concentrate on New Hampshire.
``Only the winners in Iowa and New Hampshire ... will have the money available to be real players in Super Tuesday,'' says Bob Edgar, finance director for Sen. Paul Simon. Senator Simon is tied for third place in Democratic fund raising.
But even the relatively flush campaigns of George Bush, Robert Dole, Marion G. (Pat) Robertson, and Mr. Dukakis wince as they look at Super Tuesday.
``The top viable candidates ... will probably get close to maxing out in all of the states before Super Tuesday, and no one will max out in all the states on Super Tuesday,'' says Mr. Edgar.
When asked how much is needed to make a good showing on Super Tuesday, Edgar responds, ``Every dime that's [minted] in the United States.'' No campaign, he says, has enough money to cover all the media markets.
Since the FEC puts limits on how much any campaign can spend in each state, the odds are somewhat equalized. But fund raising is one of the yardsticks used by political analysts to measure a campaign's success.
The du Pont campaign boasts that it has reached its projected $6 million target two months ahead of schedule, and indicates the achievement is a reflection of the candidate's broad appeal.
The Simon campaign is touting the fact that it raised $500,000 more than Rep. Richard Gephardt and $600,000 more than Sen. Gore in the last quarter. The only Democrat exceeding Simon in the last quarter was Dukakis, whose campaign outdistanced his nearest rival by a factor of more than 2 to 1.
Brad O'Leary, a fund-raising consultant, has not been impressed with the money-raising organizations on the Democratic side. ``It is very, very disorganized,'' he says. ``No one [other than Dukakis] has a significant apparatus in gear, and no one has a significant mailing list.''
The Bush campaign is one of the few that may have to curtail its fund-raising operation as it approaches the federally imposed ceiling of approximately $28 million (including matching funds). Recent press accounts that the campaign plans to end fund-raising efforts soon are strongly denied by the vice-president's deputy finance chairman Fred Bush (no relation).
``We intend to raise the maximum legal amount we can raise - another $4.6 million - no paltry sum,'' he says. He points out that ``the last 4.6 is a lot more difficult than the first 4.6. So we have a lot of work to do.''
Mr. O'Leary, also president of the American Association of Political Consultants, points out one problem all the candidates face: ``All of the major donors who have given to them already can give no more money'' because they have given the maximum allowed.
``It's a question of finding new major donors or having a [donor mailing] list that would generate significant money every time you mail it,'' he says.