The competition for presidential campaign money in the 2008 race is more intense than it has ever been this far before the caucus and primary voting starts.
It is also the most intense aspect of what is already a shockingly competitive contest in both major American political parties to replace George W. Bush in the White House.
Dash for Cash Behind Closed Doors
The fervent nature of the contest to raise campaign cash is largely hidden from view, making it seem to the casual observer to be less of a focus than television appearances, campaign spats, endorsements and policy pitches.
But behind the scenes, from the candidates and campaign managers, to their staffs and top supporters, the emphasis is on raising as much money as they can, as fast as they can, often to the exclusion of other considerations.
It is one of those political parlor games in which those who know aren't talking, and those who are talking mostly don't know -- meaning who will come out on top is a secret closely guarded by the insiders, who themselves are acting with imperfect information.
And it is a game of expectations, in which even the candidates who are expected to be the best-funded often try to downplay how they will do in order to keep those expectations low and to create a sense of urgency among their supporters, and potential supporters.
Occasionally and somewhat contrary, the campaigns sometimes like to demonstrate a show of force, such as Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who last week touted his claimed $1.3 million take at a Hollywood fundraiser in order to create a bandwagon effect.
Insiders know that such figures, like much of the fundraising game, is a lot about bluster and indirection.
Most of the fundraising that goes on occurs at events closed to the media and public, or on the Internet, and through the mail or private telephone calls, making it impossible for now to know who is actually doing well, and who poorly.
Money Game Already Claiming Casualties
The central importance of fundraising to the race was brought home when former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack left the Democratic contest last week citing his inability to raise the funds necessary to operate his campaign as the sole reason he was shutting down his effort.
In fact, what separates the top tier of candidates (Obama, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards for the Democrats; and Arizona Sen. John McCain, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the Republicans) from the rest of the field is largely their presumed ability to raise tens of millions of dollars over the next year.
Raising money is necessary to pay for a national campaign staff, infrastructure, polling, travel, and, eventually, for millions of dollars in television commercials.
Just as important is to demonstrate to political reporters, potential donors, activists and other politicians that you can compete in some way with the big boys (and girl) in raising the tens of millions that the top candidates are going to raise.
Matter has always mattered in this contest: With few exceptions, the top raising candidate in the year before the election in the modern era has gone on to win his party's nomination.
First Fundraising Deadline Nears
The first concrete indication of the money contest will come in mid-April, when candidates have to report the amount they have raised (and spent) through March 31.
The one thing that political insiders seem confident of is that Clinton will raise the most money. But how much, and how much more than Edwards and Obama, are truly unknown at this time.
And how the three top-tier Republicans finish in the fundraising battle -- their rank order and how many millions separate them -- are also unknown.
Some Republicans speculate that Romney, who trails his two rivals badly in national and key state polls, might down the road put in tens of millions of his own personal wealth for his campaign, but for now the competition is over raising money cheek-to-cheek-to-check against the other two.
For candidates outside the so-called "Big 6," their goals are more modest. Not tens of millions, to be sure, but enough to perhaps separate them from the pack and to avoid Vilsack's fate. And, as with the top candidates and as is so often the case in politics, to beat the mythic and shifting expectations set by the political community, about how much they should raise.
Many observers expect other candidates in both parties to fade away before the end of 2007 simply because they cannot incite the excitement and following necessary to get the cash mojo moving.
The campaigns are trying various gimmicks, such as challenging their supporters to raise a certain amount on the Internet in a fixed period of time, something that worked very well for Howard Dean in 2004.
But the heart of their fundraising operations is flying from big city to medium-size city, seeking donations, sometimes in small amounts but, as often as they can, at events in which donors give the legal limit of $2,300 per person.
While some decry the prominent role fundraising plays in the process, others see donors as investors, voting, for now, with their checkbooks, about whom they would like to see be the next president.
For the next 11 months, those financial votes will dominate these two wide-open and very competitive contests.