Robert Allen, an unemployed salesman from North Carolina, knows all about former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards' expensive haircut, his work for a hedge fund and the 28,000-square-foot mansion he built with some of the millions he earned as a trial lawyer.
But when he's had some extra cash in recent months, Allen has sent it to Edwards' presidential campaign. With each check he writes, he said, he thinks about his 23-year-old daughter, who is mentally disabled and living in a group home.
"She's doing as well as she possibly can, and I think John Edwards is the type of person who would fight for that type of person, to make sure their standards of life are correct," said Allen, 57, a registered independent who lives in Claremont, N.C.
"I haven't given a lot of money; I don't have a lot of money to give," he continued. "But I'm afraid that some other people who are running, and certainly the current administration, they don't care about individuals who can't take care of themselves."
So far, Allen has donated $319.53 to Edwards, according to Federal Election Commission records released Sunday. His latest check, $19.53 sent in June, was part of a birthday fundraising appeal recognizing the year of the candidate's birth.
Allen is part of an explosion in the number of small-dollar donors who are sending money to the 2008 presidential candidates. Though most of the candidates are fabulously wealthy -- and supported by powerful interest groups that are drumming up bundles of checks for $2,300 each, the federal maximum for individuals -- they are also receiving an unprecedented outpouring of support from individuals who are giving small donations.
"We are really witnessing a sea change in the financing of campaigns," said Anthony Corrado, a government professor at Colby College in Maine who studies campaign finance laws and practices. "We have moved from a process where candidates would largely rely on checks of $1,000 or more, to a process where the small donors matter much, much more. It's becoming more and more bottom-up, rather than top-down."
In the second quarter of 2007, more than 90 percent of the checks Edwards cashed came in increments of $100 or less, with 83,886 such donations coming into the campaign. Edwards raised nearly $9 million for the Democratic primaries.
The campaign's fundraising leader, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has shattered fundraising records by netting donations from more than 258,000 different individuals over the first six months of this year. By contrast, the most successful small-dollar donor of the 2004 primaries -- Howard Dean -- took nearly an entire year to get that many donors.
While candidates covet donors who can give the maximum $2,300 each, small-dollar donors bring their own benefits. Small investments in a campaign are cheap and easy to solicit -- often via the Internet -- and suggest that donors might be willing to volunteer for the candidates when the primaries approach.
In addition, individuals who give, say, $50 or $100 now can be tapped again and again in the coming months, until they reach the individual limits of $2,300 each.
Good-government groups generally applaud the entry of smaller donors into the process, since it suggests civic activism and lessens the importance of deep-pocketed donors who are seeking to gain influence and access to politicians.
But in something of a paradox, the small-dollar donors are helping fuel the explosive growth in fundraising numbers. That's making it far more difficult for lesser known candidates to compete, and gives candidates far less time to spend meeting regular voters.
"We're ending up with a complete arms race," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a government watchdog group. "If money is the obsession and focus for a presidential campaign, by definition it's going to take energy and focus away from issues, citizens, and other important aspects of running a campaign."
The grassroots giving also creates an odd dynamic where middle-income Americans are giving money to extremely wealthy candidates. Edwards' net worth is estimated at nearly $30 million. Candidates including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are also millionaires many times over.
Edwards, who is basing his campaign on his commitment to eradicating poverty, was asked Monday on ABC's "Good Morning America" to explain how someone as wealthy as he is could be trusted to understand the issues facing poor Americans.
"If you look at the arc of my life, I came from very little to having a lot," Edwards said. "I'm proud of the fact that I've lived the American dream. Nobody gave it to me -- I worked for it. But I want that chance to be there for everybody."
For well-to-do candidates, the challenge is showing you can relate to the problems of everyday citizens -- while being careful to show that you're not out of touch, said Erik Smith, a Democratic political consultant who is not aligned with any of the presidential candidates.
In that context, Edwards' $400 haircut did far more damage than he can make up for by reminding voters that he has his anniversary dinner every year at a Wendy's.
"You need a couple of trips to Wendy's for every haircut," Smith said. "Americans don't mind a candidate being wealthy -- what they mind is a candidate being out of touch with them."
Allen, the unemployed salesman who has donated money to Edwards, said he's not bothered by Edwards' wealth because he knows he earned it. Besides, he said, a candidate's wealth is far less important to him than how he would wield power.
"Think about President Kennedy -- I don't think the Kennedys worked for money, and they weren't hurting for money when he ran for president," he said. "He was in it for the good of the country."