The Campaign Money Chase

While Americans were watching events in Iraq, Democratic candidates were fighting Round 1 in the 2004 presidential nomination race. But this early part of the contest wasn't about votes but lining up money from contributors during the first quarter of 2003 - a year before the primaries.

The biggest campaign war chest so far belongs to Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who revealed he had collected $7.4 million during the quarter. That edged out Senator Kerry, who raised $7 million. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the 2000 vice-presidential nominee, came in at $3 million, trailing behind Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who picked up $3.6 million.

Former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, who was not expected to do that well, raised $2.6 million. Late-starter Sen. Bob Graham of Florida has about $1 million.

The amount of money a candidate has is important - you can't win the nomination or the election without it - but it doesn't guarantee victory. Money can't cover for an unfocused candidate or a disorganized campaign. Candidates with big money in the past have slipped in Iowa or New Hampshire. In 1996 Republican Sen. Phil Gramm, sitting on a pot of gold, boasted that he had the politician's best friend - "ready money" - but his campaign went nowhere.

The real challenge before the Democratic contenders isn't money but staking out middle-ground issues that will convince voters to fire President Bush. To win primaries, however, many candidates take positions that alienate moderate independents because they need to appeal to liberals who often dominate the primary vote.

In 1992, Bill Clinton was able to navigate past that problem and win the election when voters turned on the first President Bush over a bad economy - despite his Gulf War victory.

Many Democrats may think they can repeat that model in 2004. None of them, however, has shown a Clintonesque touch in politics. And George W. Bush is not his father, the Iraq war is not like the Gulf War, and the economy in the fall of 2004 is unlikely to be as it is now.

So the contest focuses on money-raising for now, in the hope slick TV ads will make the difference. But it takes more than slogans to win.

Candidates must connect with voters more than with special-interest contributors. They need good ideas as much as big bank accounts.

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