IT'S early yet in the 1996 presidential race. Polls don't mean much - the public isn't focusing on politics. State straw votes are easy for candidates to manipulate.
If you really want to see who's doing well, and who isn't, heed an old Washington saying: Follow the money.
Fund-raising and spending reports are among the best preliminary indicators of relative strength and supporter interest in any politician's White House campaign. And the money reports for this year's third quarter, just released by the Federal Election Commission, signal some interesting trends among Republican hopefuls:
* The once-humming fund-raising machine of Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas has slowed considerably.
* Conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan, by contrast, has vaulted to a tie for second place with Senator Gramm in the GOP financial race. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas remains in the financial lead.
* Debt is creeping up on some second-tier candidates. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and others will have to manage money carefully or red ink could wash away their efforts.
''I think a number of them are in trouble,'' says University of Southern California campaign-finance expert Herbert Alexander.
The biggest surprise in the FEC reports may be the problems of Gramm. The Texas senator, after all, is a candidate whose strategy has centered on raising money fast and raising it in huge amounts. It's not that his headquarters will soon be forced to put on bake sales: Gramm raised $2.16 million in July, August, and September. It's the trend that must be troubling for his campaign officials. The amount of money coming in has slowed considerably since the beginning of the year. Receipts each quarter have fallen by about half.
Gramm still has lots of money in the bank, with more than $4 million cash on hand. But he's also spent lots of money - almost $5 million last quarter - and his poll figures remain relatively low. Donors may be snapping their checkbooks shut, waiting to see results from money already given.
Front-runner Dole, by contrast, raised $5.6 million last quarter and has almost $7 million on hand. With debts of only about $700,000, Dole seems in solid financial shape as the key Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary draw ever closer.
Then there's Pat Buchanan. As the favorite-son candidate of the Republican right, Buchanan has been drawing big crowds for his well-honed attacks on President Clinton, illegal immigrants, international trade pacts, and other favorite targets. His balance sheet is now beginning to reflect his burgeoning fortunes. He raised virtually the same amount of money as did Senator Gramm last quarter, at $2.1 million. Perhaps more important, he's the only candidate in the GOP race whose fund-raising has steadily improved each quarter since the beginning of the year.
Buchanan relies on direct-mail fundraising more than do the other hopefuls, notes Mr. Alexander, the USC expert. Once his mail campaign is in place, and lists of potential donors refined, such an effort can produce big bucks quickly.
''They go back every three or four weeks to their in-house list of potential donors,'' says Alexander. ''I've heard the response to their house list has been pretty productive.''
This type of fund-raising can quickly turn sour, however. If response drops, debt can skyrocket, as it is expensive to produce multipaged, professional mail efforts.
As measured by money, the rest of the GOP field has yet to match the first tier of candidates. Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee, has seen his receipts drop sharply every quarter, falling to $1.1 million in July, August, and September. He has $1.2 million on hand and debts of $344,000.
Sen. Arlen Specter raised about the same amount of money as Alexander did - $1.03 million. But he reported only $121,000 cash on hand at the end of the quarter and debts of $603,000. Debt can kill a candidacy. After all, you have to pay it off, even if you lose, and that can take years. Such past-year candidates as Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio have found their presidential campaign debts to be heavy burdens.
For current candidates, federal matching funds may be able to erase red ink. But that money doesn't roll in until next year - and making it through the winter might be difficult. Banks are sometimes reluctant to lend second-tier candidates money against the promise of repayment from federal funds to come.
The current serious GOP candidate with the least amount of money appears to be Rep. Bob Dornan of California. The fiery Mr. Dornan has just $1,748 in the bank - and debts of almost $200,000. Rounding out the field, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana raised $1.2 million last quarter. His campaign had $386,000 on hand and debts of $461,000. Somewhat unusually, Senator Lugar's FEC records list a large sum of money owed to his campaign committee - $1.7 million.