DES MOINES, Iowa – Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Mitt Romney raised breathtaking amounts of money for their presidential bids in the year’s first three months. GOP candidates Rudy Giuliani and John McCain and Democrat John Edwards also broke records.

Barack Obama, expected to do the same, did just that. The Illinois senator revealed a $25 million war chest this week, which observes said cemented his status as a Democratic front-runner.

In a campaign season of staggering sums, the tallies for the year’s first fundraising quarter effectively separated the big-money contenders from the pack of more than a dozen Republicans and Democrats running for president.

“We now officially cut the fields in half,” said Anthony Corrado of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, who specializes in presidential elections and campaign finance. Even so, he cautioned against placing too much emphasis on the early money leaders. “There’s still so much time left.”

As history has shown, an early advantage doesn’t always make for a party’s nominee or a White House winner. Thus, the pacesetters of today will seek to continue beefing up their bank accounts while their lesser-known and lesser-funded rivals feverishly work to make up deficits.

The potential result: “We may see even higher fundraising tallies being reported in the months ahead,” said Michael Toner, a former Federal Election Commission chairman.

That seems almost unfathomable given the take in the first quarter.

Combined, five of the six top-tier presidential candidates reported raising a jaw-dropping $90.5 million from Jan. 1 through March 31. The sum doesn’t include Obama’s tally, which he disclosed after the other candidates.

Ten months before the first primary votes are cast, the dollar chase has only just begun, and the initial sums indicate that several candidates could ultimately amass an unprecedented $80 million to $100 million campaign war chest heading into 2008. Strategists from both parties predict the wide-open presidential contest could end up surpassing $2 billion in total spending by all candidates and their allies.

The biggest reason for the incredible fundraising may be the dramatic changes in the primary calendars. Several states from New York to California want to hold their nominating contests earlier next year, which could effectively turn Feb. 5 into a national primary day. To compete everywhere, candidates will have to forgo the retail politicking that’s done in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and court voters by running TV ads in expensive media markets. Thus, the enormous levels of fundraising.

The first-quarter figures for 2007 dwarf previous records.

Republican Phil Gramm of Texas brought in $8.7 million in 1995, while Democrat Al Gore of Tennessee collected $8.9 million in 1999. Gramm dropped out of the race before New Hampshire’s 1996 primary, while Gore went on to win the 2000 Democratic nomination but lose the general election to George W. Bush in a contested outcome.

Regardless of such dour history for initial fundraising leaders, Toner said: “Early money does make it easier to attract later money, and every candidate would rather be in the position of being the fundraising leader than trailing.”

So far, the Democratic side has had few surprises. That, however, could change when Obama, a freshman Illinois senator, discloses his numbers.

For now, Clinton has raked in the most among candidates who have reported their results, with $26 million. It wasn’t immediately clear just how much was primary and general election money. Nevertheless, the Democratic front-runner, who has an immense donor network, set the bar for the rest of the field, as expected.

For his part, Edwards collected $14 million, including $1 million for the general election. That’s double what he raised in the first quarter of 2003 during his first presidential run, and in the ballpark of what the ex-North Carolina senator had hoped to raise. The total put him securely in the top tier.

Several other Democrats trail Clinton and Edwards but are hoping to break through in subsequent fundraising quarters. They include New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who raised $6 million.

The outcome was far less predictable on the Republican side.

Romney reported a $23 million take – a surprising amount even though he’s known as a deft fundraiser. Of that, $2.35 million was a loan from the candidate himself. He remains in single digits in most national popularity polls and sought to solidify his standing in the top tier of the GOP field with a substantial fundraising report. He did just that. Now he faces the challenge of sustaining that brisk fundraising pace and building upon that momentum to raise his standing in polls.

Giuliani, who leads the GOP candidates in national surveys by double digits, brought in $15 million in the first quarter even though he dramatically lagged both Romney and McCain in setting up a national campaign organization. The former New York City mayor is a celebrity who has been a huge fundraising draw for the GOP in years’ past. His campaign said he raised $10 million alone in March.

Perhaps the most stunning figure came from McCain, the Arizona senator who once was considered the favorite to win the nomination. He collected only $12.5 million. That was far below expectations, given that he spent more than a year building a national campaign organization, collecting endorsements of the Republican establishment and locking up the support of a slew of big-time GOP donors.

McCain now will face extra pressure to post a big number in the second quarter – and prove he’s still a viable candidate.

Liz Sidoti covers politics for The Associated Press.
The tallies for the year’s first fundraising quarter effectively separated the big-money contenders from the pack of more than a dozen Republicans and Democrats running for president.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.