After a period of relative stasis, the Democratic presidential race could soon face a potential shakeup.
With the end of the second fundraising quarter just four days away, candidates are spending long hours on the phone and traveling to donor events across the country, trying to round up as much last-minute cash as possible. The results will not only fuel their campaigns over the summer and fall - but also influence more immediate perceptions about who has momentum and who is struggling.
By itself, money is not the most important factor in presidential contests, and at this stage of the race, it's no guarantee of success. At the start of the 1996 cycle, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas led the field in fundraising, only to see his bid fizzle as the primaries neared.
But with more than six months to go before voters begin heading to the polls, the cash count, along with polling, serves as one of the few tangible measurements of a campaign's strength. Many analysts see this second quarter as the first real test of the field as a whole.
All the Democratic candidates have been in the race for some time, so no one can use a late start as an excuse for a poor showing. And since many of the most reliable contributors have already been tapped, these numbers may reflect the breadth of each candidate's support.
"We should see the field separate here," says Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst in Washington. "The first [fundraising] quarter raised some eyebrows. But the second quarter is going to be more important, in that all the campaigns have had some time to really show what they can do."
Creating additional pressure for Democrats is the backdrop of President Bush's reelection campaign. The president is striving to raise at least $20 million in a two-week blitz - a sum that would dwarf the totals most other candidates are likely to raise, and that could wind up topping the combined tallies of the entire Democratic field. Those kinds of discrepancies could ultimately have a significant impact, because under the new campaign-finance laws, the national parties are unable to use large, unregulated "soft money" contributions to support candidates later on, making every dollar of hard money raised even more crucial.
Still, the more immediate contrast for Democrats is with each other - and with their own past performances. Just as significant will be the cash each candidate has on hand, since most campaign expenses have ramped up significantly. Raising a large sum means less if a candidate is burning through it at a fast rate.
Many campaigns are already trying to put the best possible spin on their expected results.
"Everyone needs to raise more money than they did in the first quarter," says Erik Smith, a spokesman for Rep. Richard Gephardt. Gephardt came in third in the money race last time, raising $3.5 million - but was well behind Sen. John Edwards, who raised $7.4 million, and Sen. John Kerry, who raised $7 million. "I keep hearing everyone is coming in low," suggests another campaign aide.
In fact, observers say, candidates face different thresholds for success. Those in the top tier who performed less well in the first quarter such as Gephardt, as well as Sens. Lieberman and Graham - all of whom got later starts in the race - probably need to post better numbers this time around. A poor showing for any of these candidates could lead to speculation about their viability, making it even harder to raise money in weeks ahead. "It creates kind of a vicious cycle of negativity," says Mr. Rothenberg.
On the other hand, Kerry and Edwards may not need to top their last tallies - but Edwards may want to show that his support extends beyond trial lawyers, who contributed the bulk of his first quarter results. And former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who came in fifth last time, could get a huge boost from a higher total in this quarter - particularly if he winds up beating several other top-tier candidates.
Right now, most campaigns and strategists are estimating that the top four or five candidates will all raise somewhere between $4 and $6 million - with no single candidate likely to break out of the pack. But if someone does post a surprisingly high total at the last minute - as Edwards did at the end of the first quarter - that candidate could get a lift.
Still, that momentum lasts only so long. "The effect only lasts for a month or six weeks," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. But the real power of money will become clear in the fall when Edwards and others begin pouring their resources into TV ads. "If you're up on the air for months, you're probably going to be a factor," he notes.