Candidates Scramble to Make Fundraising Splash

With a midnight deadline in sight, presidential candidates pushed for every last dollar.

Former Sen. John Edwards', D-N.C., campaign manager pleaded with supporters via e-mail.

"There is no 'later' on this one," wrote David Bonior. "Tonight sets the course for the rest of the campaign, and this moment won't come again. Will you be the one who gets us across the finish line?"

That finish line is the deadline for first quarter fundraising. Aside from opinion polls, these dollar amounts will show how a campaign is doing both nationally and in comparison with its rivals.

"These FEC reports are really early report cards in terms of the strength of these campaigns," said Michael Toner, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. "Either you produce the money or you don't. Either you're in the top tier or you're not."

The numbers also play into the political expectations game.

"If you don't exceed expectations, if you go below expectations, it's a huge problem," said Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the 2004 Bush campaign. "If you exceed expectations, it is a good day."

The leading candidates are expected to raise $15 million to $40 million. Compare that to 1999, when Al Gore led the pack after the first quarter with just $9 million.

Candidates are facing a wide-open race, no spending limits, and an extra early primary season where the winners could be determined as early as Feb. 5.

"You can't wait until next January or February to raise campaign money. To be viable, you must do so now," said Toner.

So, candidates spent Saturday on the stump. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., made several stops in Florida, including a hip-hop-filled evening gala with husband Bill in Miami.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., held several events in Iowa, as did Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. Edwards hit up donors at several private fundraisers. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., shook hands in South Carolina.

The Republican contenders took a break after raising money at a breakneck pace. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani held a fundraiser every day this week. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took off for Iraq, after headlining 27 events this month alone.

But their Internet pleas have been constant. Republican former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's wife Ann explained why the first quarter report was so important.

"It's a moment pundits and prognosticators and the other candidates in the race will be watching to see how much money we can raise for Mitt," she wrote. "Now you can help put us over the top by showing your support today."

Former Republican Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee compared the moment to the hit TV show "24," in which the show's hero, Jack Bauer, races against the clock.

"We're in our own version of '24,' as we seek to show support in the first quarter reports," he wrote supporters. "Jack Bauer is not available to help us, but I'd rather have your help than a fictional TV hero any day!"