Before any votes, a 'money primary'

It was "money, and only money," that led former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to drop out of the 2008 presidential race last Friday. What the Democrat meant, of course, was a lack of money. Not hard work or desire.

Politicians often speak of fundraising with disdain, but in fact, the money that donors are willing to shell out to candidates represents an important signal of a candidate's viability. Even if much of the public is not fully engaged in the intense nomination races under way in both parties, wealthy donors are. And they're voting with their checkbooks.

It's all part of what's come to be known as the "invisible primary" – the early jockeying for money, top campaign staff, and high-profile endorsements that winnow the presidential field long before any caucuses or primaries are held. A fourth piece, media buzz, magnifies the effect of the other three.

"Organization, fundraising, and endorsements are all various forms of currency, or various bets on the probability that a candidate will finish first or in the [top three]" in the early nominating contests, says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "No one wants to endorse a candidate they know will have to drop out early or won't be able to raise money or convince a top-drawer management team to take on their campaign."

Mr. Vilsack knew going in that he faced an uphill climb. Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois were likely to run, and a third likely candidate, former vice presidential nominee John Edwards, had already built up a strong organization in Iowa, which will hold the first nominating contest next January. All three ended up declaring, and currently occupy the top three spots in most polls of Democratic primary voters.

For Vilsack, one big trouble sign came in polls of his home state, where he typically polled fourth among Democratic presidential wannabes. Though he was a popular two-term governor, with a centrist approach, he never was able to carve out a national image among his own people, and, lacking the charisma of an Obama or an Edwards, could not attract much attention (or money or media or endorsements) outside Iowa. In the Iowa caucuses, he had to finish well if not first to keep going. But as the hometown candidate, the moment he did well, the import of the Iowa caucuses would have been discounted. So in effect, he was in a no-win situation.

One beneficiary of Vilsack's decision could be Gov. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico, the only other candidate with executive experience in the race. Governor Richardson also brings Washington experience – as a former congressman and Energy secretary – as well as foreign policy credentials, as a former UN ambassador and still part-time globetrotter and hostage negotiator, to the table.

But Richardson is another candidate who could face viability problems soon if he does not show some chops in the fundraising department. As the sitting governor of a state far from the key money centers, Los Angeles and New York, it will be hard for him to raise the kind of serious money he needs. Still, he's already well ahead of where Vilsack was when he pulled out. Last week, Richardson raised $2 million in a single fundraiser. Vilsack had raised just $1.1 million in the last seven weeks of 2006, and had spent most of it by the end of the year.

In this presidential cycle, money is more important than ever – especially since some top candidates have signaled they will forgo the public financing system and raise as much as they can on their own. Campaign-finance experts say that, to remain viable, a candidate needs to raise upwards of $20 million by June. Some top-tier candidates, like Clinton, can expect to do far better than that.

The Richardson and Obama candidacies have opened up mini invisible primaries within the larger one, one in the Hispanic community and the other among African-Americans. The challenge for both men is to compete against the Clinton machine, which has strong connections to both communities owing to the presidency of Clinton's husband, Bill Clinton, and his continuing popularity among both groups. (Richardson is Hispanic and Obama is black.)

The campaign of Hillary Clinton, which has worked all along to create an air of inevitability around her candidacy, has reached out to key players in both worlds and locked in talent and donors. For both Richardson and Obama, the ethnic/racial dimension has presented a challenge: Neither says he is running as the "Hispanic candidate" or the "African-American candidate," but those are natural ties that can produce important endorsements and donations.

And even as the overall Democratic field has shrunk, it may not be done growing either. Speculation persists that former Vice President Al Gore may yet jump into the race – one of the few people who could still do that and mount a viable candidacy, given his national fame and fundraising ability.

In a Pew Research Center poll released last Friday, most Democratic voters (77 percent) reported that they have not given the presidential campaign much thought and were not prepared to state which candidate they would support. Among those who were willing to name a candidate, Clinton came in first with 11 percent, Obama got 7 percent, Edwards got 1 percent, Gore got 1 percent, and 4 percent went to others.

Given that the invisible primary is taking place largely unnoticed by most Americans may strike some as undemocratic. In effect, the choices that voters will face early next year in the nominating contests are being shaped right now, before most people are paying attention. But the system has run this way for a long time. It was the influential GOP donors and governors who hand-picked then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush to run for president back in 1999. Ronald Reagan was tapped to run for president in similar fashion.

Still, the early importance of big money in the 2008 presidential cycle is unprecedented. "This may well be a very important year in that process, in the sense of more and more money being required to run," says Mr. Jillson.

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