Story Highlights• Sen. Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani leading polls in 2008 presidential races
• Fundraising amounts viewed as a sign of political support
• Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack's endorsement of Clinton could be key
From Bill Schneider
CNN Senior Political Analyst
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- What's the score? That's easy to tell in a basketball game. It's a little harder to tell in politics, where nobody's voting yet. So how do you keep score in a presidential race where nobody will be voting for nearly a year?
There are polls, of course. The national polls show Republican Sen. John McCain, Arizona, losing his lead to fellow Republican and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the race for the GOP nomination. Polls say Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has vaulted into second place among Democrats, behind Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York. But do those national polls really mean much?
"Poll ratings largely reflect public standing, visibility, name recognition," according to Thom Mann of the Brooking Institute. Polls in the early caucus and primary states are more important. But they can be risky.
Gordon Fischer, the former Iowa state Democratic chairman, cautions, "I think it's very difficult to poll in a caucus state because -- unlike a primary state -- in a caucus state, you have to show up on a date certain, on a night certain and spend two or three hours at a party meeting."
Money may be a better indicator of where things stand. "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?" says Mann.
Those first-quarter scores from what Bill Clinton has called "the money primary'' will be out next month. Expectations for his wife are high. She is reported to have raised nearly $10 million just in the past week.
On the Republican side, McCain tried to lower expectations for his first-quarter fundraising. "We started late, our money raising, and we're going to pay a price for it,'' McCain told reporters in New Hampshire. "We're not going to meet the goals we had.''
McCain's advisers tried to pump up expectations for rival Mitt Romney by suggesting that Romney's fundraising might outpace McCain's. But a Romney aide stated flatly, "McCain will be in first.''
Still, there's a question how much money really matters in early states like Iowa. As Fischer points out, "You can get around and campaign in Iowa fairly inexpensively, so I don't know that money is all that important."
A key indicator in Iowa may be endorsements. Clinton got a big one on Monday, when former Iowa governor and presidential candidate Tom Vilsack endorsed her.
The Vilsack endorsement could bring organization, and that's critical to getting voters to turn out for caucuses. Fischer makes the point that Vilsack had a strong organization in Iowa during his short-lived presidential candidacy. "We have over 2,000 precincts in Iowa, and he was to the point where he was naming precinct chairs," said Fischer. "So he was far, far ahead of any of the other candidates in terms of organization."
While Clinton may be getting a big endorsement, Obama is drawing big crowds in Iowa. Do crowds matter? Maybe not. "I'd much rather appear in 500 different living rooms," said Fischer, "than have 500 different people in one crowd."
Polls, money, endorsements, organization, crowds -- they're all different ways of keeping score before the race actually begins. Because the real scoring next year, the primaries and caucuses, will come early and very fast.
Sen. Hillary Clinton is currently leading her rivals for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, and she will likely be the top fundraiser.