For months, politicians in such big states as California, Florida and Michigan have griped about their lack of influence in the 2008 presidential race, pushing up their primaries to try to diminish the sway of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Now, thanks to those efforts, Iowa and New Hampshire appear more important than ever.

The reasons are illustrated in the latest campaign fundraising reports, issued last week. The figures show a presidential contest that effectively has split into two financial tiers. One consists of Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, who are swimming in campaign cash. The other consists of everybody else.

Despite the competitive nature of the contest, fundraising has proved more difficult than many presidential candidates anticipated, particularly on the Republican side. Candidates face pressure to score an early victory in Iowa or New Hampshire – the two states adamant about voting first – and then hope to replenish their campaign treasuries quickly to compete in the rapid succession of contests that follow.

Failing that, the also-rans, Democratic and Republican, probably will have to pack up their campaigns and quit before the vast majority of voters even have a chance to weigh in.

“Iowa and New Hampshire are everything,” said Scott Reed, an unaffiliated GOP strategist, echoing the words of other political analysts. “They’ll be like a slingshot for whoever wins and does well.”

The two states have signaled their determination to keep their privileged place on the campaign calendar. On Tuesday, Iowa Republicans announced they would hold their caucuses Jan. 3, making for the earliest start of voting in the history of presidential primaries. In New Hampshire, there is talk of casting ballots in mid-December if needed to preserve the state’s first-in-the-nation primary.

However the calendar turns out – and that is not likely to be settled for a few more weeks – only two Democratic candidates, Clinton and Obama, are sitting on the kind of financial cushion that could help weather an early setback. Clinton reported $35 million in cash on hand as of Sept. 30, the latest filing deadline for the third quarter, and Obama $32 million. No other candidate had close to those sums in reserve.

“It means both can take a punch,” said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick , who is watching the primaries from the sidelines. “If they have a disappointing result, they’re not going to die politically.”

By contrast, the Republican front-runner in national voter surveys, former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, reported just over $11.6 million in the bank. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who sits atop the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, had $9.2 million in the bank, although he wields a hefty personal checkbook that could sustain him if money grows tight. Other GOP candidates reported even less cash on hand.

That makes an early victory crucial if candidates hope to keep their hopes alive until Feb. 5, the biggest single day of balloting in presidential primary history, when more than 20 states — including California, New York and Texas — go to the polls. The big winners on that day probably will take a huge step toward claiming their party’s nomination, if they have not done so already.

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Giuliani, with a national reputation forged after the Sept. 11 attacks, has focused more than most candidates on the Feb. 5 states. He has spent considerable time in California and opened offices in Missouri, New Jersey and North Dakota.

But his fundraising has been weaker than expected — $47 million through the first nine months of the year, far off the pace needed to raise the $100 million to $125 million once envisioned — and some people suggest he might need to narrow his sights and concentrate on Iowa and New Hampshire.

“You’re having to buy ads in big, big markets with all those states up,” said Bill Dal Col, a Republican strategist and Giulani contributor. Without an early victory, “How do you raise the cash to roll into Feb. 5?” he asked.

The presidential hopefuls — nearly 20 in all — have waged a fundraising frenzy throughout the year, pulling in record sums. Democrats have collected $241 million and the Republicans’ $175 million at last count.

Even candidates who scarcely register a blip in public opinion surveys, including Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, have had respectable hauls. He raised $5 million in the third quarter and $8.2 million for the year, half of it in increments of $200 or less.

But the money has not been spread evenly. Other than Clinton and Obama, none of the candidates appears likely to raise $100 million by Jan. 1, the amount experts saw as the minimum to seriously compete under such a compressed election calendar.

Worse from a financial perspective, all but a few of the candidates spent more than they raised in the last fundraising quarter, leaving them in a tough position as they head into the final months of the year, which is traditionally a difficult time to raise money. That makes an early victory all the more vital.

Romney, who has written $17.3 million in personal checks to keep his campaign in the black, has spent heavily to dominate the TV airwaves in Iowa and New Hampshire. Still, surveys have shown Romney in a tight New Hampshire race with Giuliani, who has run radio spots but not yet advertised on TV. Romney leads more comfortably in Iowa.

On the Democratic side, Clinton is well ahead in New Hampshire polls and but faces a much closer race in Iowa against Obama and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

If there is some solace for states such as Michigan — which bucked national party rules to schedule its primary Jan. 15 — and Florida — which did the same in setting its date for Jan. 29 — it is that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire probably will spend a good part of their holiday season under siege from presidential hopefuls.

“They’re going to get mail, they’re going to see TV ads, they’re going to hear radio ads,” said Carrick, recalling how surprised many were in 1988 when his candidate, Democrat Richard A. Gephardt, began broadcasting TV ads the day after Christmas. Not incidentally, Gephardt began moving up in opinion polls and won the Iowa caucuses. “It’s going to feel like a blizzard.”

AP-NY-10-20-07 1359EDT

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