By JIM KUHNHENN
Associate Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - Hillary Rodham Clinton raises nearly $3 million in a single event and husband Bill pleads for more. John McCain publicly frets about falling financially behind.
With the first quarter of fundraising ending Saturday, the presidential campaigns are working overtime to make sure they don't get tagged as losers in the money race.
"Money in the off year has never been more important than in this presidential cycle," said Michael Toner, a former Federal Election Commission chairman.
In a message to supporters last week, Bill Clinton stressed the importance of posting high fundraising totals in the first quarter.
"The (financial) report her campaign files will set the tone for the rest of the year, and it is absolutely critical to her success," he wrote, just days after he headlined a $2.7 million Washington fundraiser for her.
Official campaign totals place her fundraising for just last week at $6 million, but that number could underestimate sums raised in New York and California. And by all accounts, the Democratic front-runner will lead all candidates in first-quarter fundraising. Some rival camps, eager to boost expectations for the New York senator, suggest her overall contributions could reach up to $40 million.
Campaigning in California, former Sen. John Edwards said neither he nor any other candidate could match Clinton's fundraising juggernaut, but, "I will have enough money to be heard."
Only Clinton's campaign knows the extent of her fundraising. Her main Democratic challengers simply want to stay within reach.
"If the press reports that Hillary has raised a lot of money, people are going to yawn and change the channel - big deal," said Wade Byrd, a North Carolina lawyer and fundraiser for Edwards. "But if we can stay in the game, now that's news and we're going to stay in the game."
Sen. Barack Obama is expected to come in behind Clinton, perhaps at about $20 million, helped in part by a significant online donor base. Obama also has attracted big name contributors, including billionaire investor Warren Buffett. Edwards is likely to fall in third place.
"I know how hard I am working to raise money and I know how hard people are working to help me raise money," Clinton said in an interview Monday with The Associated Press in Iowa. "... The amount of time we have to spend really undermines the political debate and dialogue. We should be out talking to people."
The big numbers will get a boost because several candidates also have been raising money for the general election campaign, in case they choose to bypass the public financing system. The Federal Election Commission last month said presidential candidates could raise money now for the general election campaign and could later return it if they choose to accept money from the taxpayer-financed presidential election fund.
That is bound to artificially increase the amount of money raised this quarter. One Clinton fundraiser estimated that 25 percent of the contributions at one of her fundraisers was for the general election.
Among Republicans, the picture is less predictable. McCain, the early front-runner, has indicated in recent days that his fundraising totals are falling short of his goals.
"I haven't done a good enough job," he said at a news conference Monday in Dallas. "We're ramping it up on the fundraising."
In New Hampshire Saturday, he said he would "pay a price for it because we got off to a late start." In the midst of a campaign tour, he said: "I enjoy this kind of politics more than I enjoy raising money."
While McCain entered the race as the favorite, he has fallen behind former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in national polls. Weak fundraising would further hurt his image, even though he remains the most popular Republican in New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney got off to a fast start with a big fundraising day early in his campaign that raised more than $6 million. His fundraisers say Romney has kept up a strong fundraising pace, tapping a donor base that includes former business associates and the Mormon church.
"The positive piece of news is that it has been sustainable," said Tom Tellefsen, Romney national finance co-chairman. Still, he said the campaign has also had to spend a significant amount of time getting organized.
"I do feel comfortable that we will be very, very close," he said. "If we're not No. 1 we'll be very much in the pack."
Romney appeared Monday night at a Houston fundraiser with more than 100 of the city's top GOP fundraisers. He said he expects to finish third in fundraising during the first quarter, but he noted McCain's earlier remarks.
"My expectation is he would be far and away the leader in raising money," Romney said. "It may not be as much as he was planning, but I sure expect him to be at the top of the heap."
Giuliani is expected to be in the mix with Romney and McCain. All three boast fundraisers culled from the Pioneers and Rangers that formed the core of President Bush's fundraising operation.
Money isn't everything, of course. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, raised the most money for his presidential campaign in 1995 but dropped out before the New Hampshire primary. And former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean made a fundraising splash in 2003, but came in third in the Iowa caucuses.
What's more, second-tier candidates in both parties could also surprise the field. Among Democrats, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who is the chairman of the Senate's Financial Services Committee, has been raising money from the banking community. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has done some fundraising, though Democrats close to his campaign say he is hoping to do better in the second quarter.
"The real bench mark: $30 million by the end of March 31, and the second one is $15 million to $20 million," Toner said. "If a candidate is under $10 million, it will be very difficult to continue competing."
Associated Press Writers Mike Glover in Des Moines, Iowa, and
Jeff Carlton in Dallas contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)