Forget about Iowa and New Hampshire.
Nomination contests in those states - traditionally the first proving ground for presidential hopefuls - are being elbowed aside in the 2000 presidential race, already fiercely under way. The real action right now is in the "invisible primaries" - which are in full swing, with some surprising results.
The "invisible primaries," as analysts refer to them, are the very early battles to score high in opinion polls and to raise huge sums of money. And though opionion polls don't carry a lot of weight at this point - anything can change - the money game can be decisive.
By the money barometer, according to recently filed 1999 first-quarter reports, the front-runners - Democratic Vice President Al Gore and Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush - have both demonstrated fearsome fund-raising prowess, and in fact raised record-breaking amounts: $8.8 million so far for Mr. Gore and $7.6 million for Mr. Bush.
But the race for the nomination is by no means over. Big money is crucial, but it provides no guarantees.
Just ask Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, who raised a whopping $25 million in 1995 (including a transfer from his Senate campaign committee), only to drop out of the 1996 presidential race early when the votes didn't follow.
The late John Connally (R), a former Texas governor, was another famous big-money candidate whose presidential bid, in 1980, tanked early. Though he raised nearly $13 million, he only had one delegate at the GOP convention to show for it.
But on the flip side of the money game, say analysts, don't rule out any of the names that trail Gore and Bush. Even a slow-to-start fund-raiser can catch fire later in the race.
Former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, Gore's only challenger for the Democratic nomination, did surprisingly well, with $4.3 million raised in the first quarter. So did Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who took $2 million from his Senate campaign account to post a tidy $3.8 million first-quarter figure.
"The real question is going to be how well the second tier of candidates - particularly Lamar Alexander, McCain, Elizabeth Dole - do in fund-raising in this next six-month period," says Tony Corrado, an expert on campaign finace at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
For them, the issue is not whether they can catch up to Gore and Bush, but how close they can come to raising the $20 million to $25 million experts say they'll need to be competitive when Jan. 1, 2000, rolls around.
For the first time in modern presidential politics, all candidates are going to have to do the bulk of their fund-raising before the close of the year preceding the election. The schedule of caucuses and primaries, beginning in February 2000, is now so condensed that even if a less-well-funded candidate does unexpectedly well in the early contests, it will be virtually impossible for him or her to raise the quick cash needed to remain competitive.
Compounding the condensed primary schedule is the fact that some big states - such as California and New York - have bumped their primaries up to dates that fall early in the season. And candidates must be mindful of both state and overall spending limits. Spending too much too soon can be disastrous - as it was in 1996 for Republican Bob Dole, who was forced to spend large amounts of money in the primaries to fend off stiff challenges from his GOP competitors.
"The overall spending limit is crucial in 2000, because big states like California and New York are more relevant than they were four years ago," says Herb Alexander, a campaign-finance expert and professor emeritus at the University of Southern California.
So, if you're Elizabeth Dole, who raised only $700,000 in the first quarter of 1999, is it too late to mount a serious candidacy?
Not at all, analysts say. She got a late start, but she's now set to embark on a fund-raising tour. And, as she has touted on television this week, she's third among the Republican candidates in cash-on-hand, at $600,000.
Still, says Professor Corrado of Colby College, "it's certainly getting to the point where candidates are going to have to exhibit significant ability to raise funds."
It's not even too late, he says, for conservative standard-bearers like Gary Bauer ($1.4 million raised so far) and Pat Buchanan (at $550,000) to raise some serious money. They are raising most of their money through direct-mail, small-donor contributions, and so their numbers should pick up more into the late summer and early fall.
With so many Republicans out there raising money - nine, plus the wealthy and self-financed publisher Steve Forbes - it's inevitable that the GOP primaries will be slug-fests. And that's why Bush is seriously considering foregoing federal matching funds - and therefore any limits on the amount of money he can raise.
Bush has clearly learned the lessons of the 1996 elections, when Mr. Dole, the GOP's presumptive nominee, ran out of money between March 1996 and the Republican convention in August - leaving the advertising field open for President Clinton. He was able to run millions of dollars worth of ads, leaving Mr. Dole locked in a double-digit poll disadvantage he was never able to overcome.
If Bush does decide to forgo federal matching funds, it will be a rare and bold maneuver, especially for a candidate who isn't already president. But if any Republican nonincumbent can pull it off, Bush can, political analysts say. He already has in place a formidable fund-raising network, combining that of his father, former President Bush, and of his own team forged from two successful bids for the Texas governorship.