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Financial Checkup

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In five weeks, the presidential campaigns must close their books on the second quarter and begin preparing their reports to the Federal Election Commission on fundraising, spending, and cash-on-hand. Although it would be an exaggeration to say that this will be a make-or-break moment for any of the campaigns, their second-quarter reports will be important windows into how well each has been able to expand its financial base beyond home-state contributors, friends, and other natural allies.

Much of the cash raised during the first quarter was "love money" -- contributions from candidates' most loyal friends and supporters. But to be truly competitive, a presidential campaign must build many concentric circles of financial support beyond the candidate's Christmas card list and the ranks of previous contributors. News organizations, political operatives, rival camps, and, yes, even donors will scrutinize the second-quarter reports for indicators of who is building momentum and who is at risk of having their fuel tanks run dry.

Every candidate has something to prove. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., must show that his disappointing first-quarter fundraising figures were an anomaly and that he is now raising money at a pace competitive with those of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the GOP's first-quarter fundraising leader, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the GOP front-runner in the national polls. Meanwhile, Romney must prove that he has staying power in terms of fundraising. And Giuliani must show that, financially, he can go toe-to-toe with rivals who aren't carrying as much ideological baggage.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois each raised about $26 million in the first quarter -- more than anyone else in either party. Clinton beat out Obama in cash-on-hand because she had $10 million remaining from her re-election campaign. When the second-quarter numbers are released, all eyes will be on this duo to see if one pulled well ahead.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, in third place in both the national polls and first-quarter fundraising, is surely not going to be able to overtake either pacesetter by the end of June. But he needs to show that he can remain within hailing distance by raising at least half of what each of the leaders raises. Edwards's lead in Iowa polls also keeps him in contention.

Next, check Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who chairs the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee and grabbed fourth place in first-quarter receipts, largely because of his success in tapping the financial services sector. Look to see if he can expand beyond his panel's jurisdiction.

Finally, keep an eye on New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has begun to show some strength in early-state polling and came in fifth in first-quarter receipts. Watch to see if he manages to move up a notch.

All three top-tier Republicans must show that they can raise much more than they spend, that they can husband their resources -- something they failed to do in the first quarter. During the first reporting period, Romney's campaign spent 55 percent of everything it raised in that period, Giuliani's spent 39 percent, and McCain's had a scorching burn rate of 64 percent.

The Democrats weren't such free spenders. Clinton's campaign used just 19 percent of its first-quarter contributions, Obama's spent 26 percent, and Edwards's spent 24 percent. In fact, the top five Democrats' campaigns each spent less than one-third of its first-quarter receipts. At 56 percent, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware was the only Democrat among the top seven to exceed one-third.

Of the top nine Republican fundraisers, only Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee managed to spend less than 33 percent of their total contributions for the quarter. Six of the nine spent more than half of their newly raised money, compared with only one of the seven top Democrats.

At this stage in the 2008 presidential race, the four most important measures of a candidate's progress are the FEC reports, Iowa polls, New Hampshire polls, and national polls. Any candidate who isn't in first or second place in at least one of those categories is running decidedly uphill.

 
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