Hidden Treasure

The impressive Bush fund-raising machine lived up to expectations last week when Federal Election Commission (FEC) documents showed that the president had raked in $34.4 million in the second quarter of this year. But there were some hopeful signs for Democrats, too, in the numbers behind the numbers.

Sure, President Bush raised more than all nine Democratic hopefuls combined. About 105,000 donors gave the president money; 70 percent of those donations were worth $2,000 each, according to The Washington Post. But almost as many people gave to the campaigns of two Democratic candidates -- former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.), who raised $7.6 million with about 73,000 people supporting him, and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who took in $5.9 million from 23,000 people. About 60 percent of Dean's contributions amounted to $250 or less per person, which means the contributions will be eligible for federal matching funds. And because Dean's contributions came in smaller amounts, his donors won't be running up against the individual caps on donations anytime soon.

There's no doubt that Bush's handlers are happy with the president's take. But Bush has reason to be worried. The Democrats' totaled almost $31 million, and while it's spread out among the different candidates now, when the party chooses a nominee, he or she will have a good fund-raising base to tap into. Republicans also traditionally raise more than Democrats, so Bush's lead -- considering that he is a popular incumbent president -- isn't as daunting as it might seem.

Additionally, Bush has an experienced fund-raising operation; much of what Dean, for example, has raised has come through word of mouth and the Internet. After a few elections wherein candidates viewed the Internet as though it were some strange animal they didn't know what to do with, presidential hopefuls -- and voters -- are finally starting to understand the Web's potential. (The Internet may even help draw a candidate into the race, if DraftWesleyClark.com proves successful.)

Money often plays too important a role in the primary campaign. As many a failed presidential candidate can attest, money isn't always the mother's milk of politics. Message and grass-roots support count, too. A few candidates don't have any of these three things going for them. Most notable is former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.), who has about $22,000 cash-on-hand, just enough to buy a new car, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has just $12,000 cash-on-hand, enough to rent a nice New York apartment for a few months. It would be in the Democratic Party's best interest if both stepped aside. (Unfortunately, Sharpton, at least, isn't likely to quite the race anytime soon.)

Others, such as Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), have a message (he's the most centrist candidate), but little grass-roots support and problems with fund raising (he recently lost his top two advisers). Former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) has grass-roots support, but his message has gotten confused with that of the House Democrats in Washington. He also has money troubles, having pulled in only half ($3.8 million) the amount Dean accumulated in the second quarter.

Bush has money and there's no doubt he'll have grass-roots support from organizations such as the Christian Coalition and National Rifle Association. But he's vulnerable on his message. His grand plan has been to talk about how successful his national- and homeland-security strategies have been. If the situation in Iraq doesn't improve soon, though, or there's trouble with another country such as North Korea, Bush may start singing a domestic tune. But there, too, he faces problems: The deficit is ballooning, his tax cuts have forced state and local governments to cut back on services (and raise state and local taxes), and jobs have been lost, not gained, on his watch. If Bush has no good message to share on either foreign or domestic issues, all the money in the world won't be able to save him.

The candidate who wins the Democratic primary will no doubt have grass-roots support (after all, it's the party's base -- its most loyal voters -- who vote in primaries and caucuses). He or she may have little money left after the primary, but, as I've said, the total Democratic take should provide the candidate with a large and deep base to tap into for the general election. Furthermore, the Democratic candidate will be able to make the argument that Bush wasted his four years in office, especially if things don't turn around soon. Combine that with a positive Democratic platform for the future (an area the candidates are still hashing out) and the smart money says it could add up to a one-term presidency for George W. Bush.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.

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