The 2008 election debate covers many topics: war and peace, rich and poor, black and white, male and female. But come Sunday, it all comes down to four words: Show me the money.
The first fundraising period of the presidential election comes to a close this weekend, and as the dash for cash enters its homestretch, campaigns play the expectations game, spinning their spoils to turn too much or too little into just right in the eyes of the press and public.
"If you can't raise more money than everybody else," says ABC News Political Director David Chalian, "You can at least try to spin your cash haul as besting expectations in hopes for some momentum in the press and among donors."
The reports themselves aren't made public until April 15, though the spin starts much sooner. Financials are the first key indicator of a candidate's electability: attracting key supporters in states with early nominating contests as well as allowing them to secure a national staff and campaign infrastructure.
The Mother's Milk of Politics
Having a financial base that's both wide and deep, says Chalian, is "the mother's milk of politics."
"Money begets money," Chalian explains. "If a candidate posts impressive fundraising figures, that candidate is likely to get positive press coverage, which could lead to a bump in the polls which usually leads to more money."
But does strength equal support?
"Donors and activists love nothing more than to back a winner," Chalian says. "Few things create the aura of a winner better than raising significant sums of cash."
Follow the Money
More often than not, candidates who raise the most money in the year before the election emerge as the party nominee.
The most recent exception to the rule being former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, who, as the Democratic golden boy, outraised his opponents within the party, though ultimately lost the nomination to Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
"Be on the lookout for lots of spin from the campaigns attempting to explain why their candidate bested expectations and why their opponents fell short," Chalian says.
Some of that protective spin has already started.
In an interview with "Nightline" co-anchor Terry Moran, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., admitted he would fall short of fundraising expectations in advance of the deadline, despite the fact that some of his GOP opponents have made recent comments touting him as the financial front-runner.
"I don't think we've met the goals that we've hoped that we would meet because we started too late," claimed McCain, citing a December 2006 start to his exploratory campaign as the reason for the shortfall.
In regard to fundraising, McCain said, "We didn't do it exactly right," but he denied trouble on the horizon.
"[We] just didn't focus on it hard enough and to really get into the fundraising activities that we should of from the beginning," the second time White House aspirant contended.
It's all part of a political ploy to make a loss more muted and a win more celebratory.
Chalian explains, "If a campaign can't win the actual money race, perhaps it can gain some traction by winning the expectations game."
Some campaigns have already made headlines with fundraisers far more creative than the standard rubber chicken dinners and glamorous galas in the Hollywood hills.
On the Republican side, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney even offered students a slice of the fundraising pie.
But whether it's innovative exercise that burns as many Benjamins as calories or students getting a cut of the take, watchful eyes will monitor the campaigns in their constant quest to reinvent ways to raise money.
And, believe it or not, they've only just begun.