Story Highlights• 2008 presidential candidates trying to raise campaign cash by March 31
• First report on candidates' fundraising comes from election officials April 15
• Strong fundraising efforts viewed as a sign of political strength
From Bill Schneider
CNN Senior Political Analyst
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It's March Madness.
Basketball? Well, that, too. As Sheila Krumholz, the Executive Director of the Center for Responsive Politics, puts it, "This is truly the March Madness of campaign fundraising."
In the game of presidential fundraising, candidates are racing around the country, trying to raise huge sums of money for their campaign war chest.
Just this week, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, was looking for cash in Denver, Colorado, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, was out on the road raising money in Alabama, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. And Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York, was on the trail in Philadelphia, while her husband was host at fundraisers in New York and Washington.
All of this before time runs out on March 31, which is when the first quarter ends and campaigns have to report their fundraising totals to the Federal Election Commission. The FEC then tallies and makes public these reports. That report, due on April 15, is the first official scorecard of this year's invisible primary.
It's important enough of a deadline that even former President Bill Clinton refers to it on a video released on Hillary Clinton's Web site, "I hope you'll send in a contribution and support her campaign, and please do it by the March 31 deadline."
Thom Mann of the Brookings Institute said this report will be an indicator of how the candidates are doing, "The scorekeepers, the press, the pundits, the party strategists are all looking on this as a key indicator, how much money have they raised in the first quarter?"
Mann makes the argument that these reports are a better measure than polls, saying, "Poll ratings largely reflect public standing, visibility, name recognition, while fundraising indicates their ability to put together a substantial organization."
"That financial support," Mann adds, "might later buy the very visibility that would move them up in the polls."
Mann has a point. In the first quarter of 1999, George W. Bush was easily the most valuable player. Bush's $7.5 million outclassed his Republican competitors and scored big points in the political world. Democrats John Kerry and John Edwards both scored big in the first quarter of 2003 and ended up on the Democratic ticket. Howard Dean's total of nearly $3 million also attracted attention and made him a player to watch. This first quarterly deadline is like the first round of Election 2008 and all the candidates want to get to the finals.
March Madness is at a fever pitch this year because both parties have wide open races. The primaries don't start until mid-January 2008, but could be over very quickly -- in just a few weeks after that first primary. There's no time to raise money once the voting starts. So these early rounds are even more important.
And one more factor in the fundraising frenzy: The major candidates have said they will not take public financing. This means they will have to raise all the money they need on their own for the primaries and the general election.
Even without the public funding, Krumholz believes this could be a high-priced election cycle: "This could be the first billion-dollar election, for the two eventual nominees. And that means they have to deliver 10, 20, 30 million dollars just in the first quarter just to keep up."
That means there are high expectations for all the candidates, both Democratic and Republican. Clinton has to prove her strength, Mann says, "This is her opportunity to demonstrate the awesome political machine's ability to put her ahead of the pack.''
For Obama, Krumholz thinks he'll have to live up to expectations set by the Clinton campaign, "He's been doing very well as far as soliciting supports online. We'll see whether that adds up enough to topple the big fundraising that kind of expectations have been set by the Clinton campaign."
Krumholz also believes that Edwards, a former senator, has to prove that he belongs in the game and can play at this level, "Sen. Edwards has to prove that he is of the same level of fundraising as Sens. Clinton and Obama."
On the Republican side, McCain faces the highest expectations. Mann says McCain has to make himself the frontrunner, "He will re-establish himself as at least the fundraising frontrunner. If he doesn't, it's another blow to his candidacy."
Expectations for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani are a little lower. He just has to prove he can play, says Krumholz, "We'll see if he can prove a good showing with this first quarter report. That will tell us a lot as far as his strength and attraction."
And of course there's Mitt Romney, who Mann believes could be the upset, "He is a formidable fundraiser and could well challenge McCain in these early numbers, and that will elevate his standing."
The campaigns will of course try to lowball expectations and then, when the figures come out, say "We raised more than expected." But a lot is at stake and each deadline is important. March Madness is here and all of the campaigns want to make it to the next round.