Cash and Kerry

His big New Hampshire victory gives John Kerry more than a bounce going into the 17 state contests in February. It's a catapult.

Less than a month ago, the war-voting junior senator from Massachusetts was down 25 points in the polls behind the antiwar Howard Dean. He switched strategies to tout his résumé over issues, mortgaged his expensive Boston mansion to pay for a TV blitz, and went on to take both Iowa and New Hampshire, a rare political feat.

Like the other major Democratic candidates, though, he's nearly emptied his campaign cupboard. While the bus-and-SUV style of door-to-door stumping in those two smaller states is cheap by comparison to coming primaries in more populous states, the candidates have been spending money in the first two contests for nearly a year, and in very competitive races. From here on, they face primaries piled close together (seven alone on Feb. 3), and with larger costs for travel, staff, and TV ads in expensive urban markets.

In other words, now is the time in this peculiar American political drama when Mr. Kerry, by being the perceived front-runner, can start to draw on that huge cash machine called, ever so politely, political contributions, coming mainly from big donors. He's opted out of federal financing and its restraint on spending.

And all those candidates seen as losers will find donor wallets closed.

Mr. Dean, who created the Internet market for small-scale donations, raised over $25 million but now has only a few million left. Coming up a distant second to Kerry probably won't get him back on the same gravy train. Dean, John Edwards, and Wesley Clark need a win in either South Carolina, Michigan, or Missouri to afford further campaigning.

In past primaries, too many worthy candidates have had to drop out way too early simply because they ran out of money. The unfortunate fact - that money is the mother's milk of politics - not only deprives the nation of a more rigorous debate about candidates and issues, it creates a perverse dependency on big donors for early winners. If they win the White House, they feel beholden to a privileged few, despite any rhetoric against special interests.

Kerry now has bragging rights that he's electable and will spend much more time hitting up donors. Voters in coming primaries, however, need to look at each candidate on the merits, despite Kerry's catapulting victories.

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