While the candidates for the White House will spend the next week furiously raising money in advance of their next financial reporting deadline, the man who has raised the most is facing a different challenge: turning that money into a lead in the polls.
Like his fellow contenders, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who led all candidates in both parties by pulling in $58.5 million over the first six months of the year, will be holding a string of fundraisers this week, before the latest quarterly fundraising deadline of Sept. 30.
Even before the totals are announced, however, some of the donors who have helped raise millions for Obama are beginning to ask when the gap in polls between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) will finally begin to narrow. The first votes in the primary season will be cast in less than four months, and the nomination could be wrapped up in a matter of weeks after that.
"People ask me all the time when I'm raising money: 'What is going on with the polling?' " one member of Obama's national finance committee said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the campaign's restriction on committee members speaking to the news media. "He drives out great crowds wherever he goes, but everyone still wonders a little bit if that's going to turn into votes."
Clinton, despite becoming the subject of frequent sniping from her rivals, has shown no signs of faltering. Riding a consistent double-digit lead over Obama in national polls, she will make a media blitz this morning, appearing on five of the top network and cable talk shows. She is also ahead in most surveys in the early-voting states, except in Iowa where the race is tight.
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe contended that the race should be viewed through the early crucible of Iowa, which remains almost certain to have the first say in the nomination contest despite a shifting campaign calendar.
"I think Iowa is in a different level of engagement than any other state in the country, and what you see there is a very tight three-way contest" among Obama, Clinton and former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), Plouffe said in an interview. "It's the only place we've advertised in and the place Senator Obama has spent most of his time."
Some Obama supporters are pushing him to make a change in strategy: a full, no-holds-barred attack on Clinton and aspects of her husband's legacy. For now, sources said, others inside the campaign -- most important, the candidate himself -- favor a more nuanced approach, seeking contrast with Clinton on issues that emphasize Obama's strengths, particularly the notion that he can unite Americans while arguing that the Clintons are more polarizing figures.
"Are we going to distort quotes and votes from 15 or 20 years ago? No," Plouffe said. "That's not the kind of campaign Barack wants to run. But when we do have significant differences . . . those are issues we're going to engage on."
Obama is making some changes to his campaign. In Iowa last week, the campaign launched its first television ads that featured Obama speaking directly to the camera. Valerie Jarrett, a longtime family friend who vacations with the Obamas at Martha's Vineyard, will begin spending more time in the headquarters and possibly on the road with Obama. Aides characterized the move not as a major reshuffling but rather an attempt to add depth to the campaign's staff.
Steve Hildebrand, a veteran Democratic operative who has been overseeing the early-states strategy of Obama, is broadening his portfolio to include states such as California and New York that will vote on what could amount to a national mega-primary on Feb. 5. He is taking this tack as Obama aides are preparing for a protracted nomination battle, betting that balloting in Iowa and New Hampshire alone will not determine the final outcome of the contest.
As Obama wrestles with the enviable problem of translating a slew of cash into upward movement in the polls, the other candidates are simply hoping to wring out enough contributions in the next week to meet the high expectations established in the first half of the year. Aides to many are warning that the pockets of the nation's political donors may not be bottomless.
"The third is tougher on everybody," said Jim Dyke, a senior consultant to former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R), referring to the third quarter. "There has been such a massive infusion already. The system has been squeezed so hard already."
Or as Kevin Madden, spokesman for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R), put it: "Look, the whole country was on vacation. It's a tough quarter."
Through June, the candidates combined had raised $276.6 million, almost three times what earlier contenders had raised at the end of the second quarter in 1999 and in 2003, for the presidential races in 2000 and in 2004.
The early crush to raise money also means that many potential donors have already reached the legal limit of their giving: $2,300 per person. So far, 70 percent of Clinton donors have "maxed out," forcing Clinton, who had raised $52.5 million for the primaries by the end of June, to look for new contributors.
"Presumably, the low-hanging fruit was plucked at the beginning," said Jan Baran, a campaign finance lawyer. "Her campaign, like most campaigns, are going to find it increasingly difficult to locate new donors."
Aides to Edwards, who has struggled to keep pace with Clinton and Obama both in the polls and in fundraising, said they are on track to meeting their goal of raising $40 million by the time the primary voting begins.
"We're on track with our four-state, $40 million strategy, which is the amount our campaign believes will be enough to aggressively get our message out in each of the early states," spokeswoman Colleen Murray said.
Among Republicans, Romney is leading in Iowa and New Hampshire polls but lags far behind in national surveys, struggling to break into double digits in most of them. Aides are working overtime to keep expectations low.
"The campaign remains focused on building our grass-roots fundraising infrastructure with help from volunteer donors and supporters," Madden said.
Romney has already tapped his vast personal wealth in the first half of the year, contributing $9 million to the campaign. It has been reported that he is willing to put a total of $80 million into the campaign. Still, Romney has several fundraisers scheduled, including at least a half-dozen in California. His supporters are also being pushed to host their own mini "rallies" in cities across the country, each with a goal of raising $1,000 for the campaign.
Other Republicans are also working hard to tamp down expectations.
A source familiar with the fundraising efforts of former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) said that, while the newest addition to the Republican field is "hitting his targets," there is concern that the amount could appear small when stacked next to his rivals'. Thompson's first report showed that he raised about $3 million in June.
"Frankly, I'm worried about money," the source said. "With Mitt putting his own money in the race, a bunch of money for us might wind up looking like a pittance by comparison."
Thompson's campaign manger, Bill Lacy, said he is not concerned, saying that Thompson needs only "a threshold amount of money" to fund effective campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.
"Our bottom line: We are running what I would call an insurgency-style campaign," Lacy said in an interview. "We will spend a lot less money than Mayor Giuliani or Mitt Romney. I am not of the view that the candidate that spends the most money wins."
Thompson's campaign has started a contest to get small towns to raise money, promising that the town with "most donations per capita" will get a visit from the candidate.
A Giuliani fundraiser who previously raised money for President Bush said he has noticed a dramatic difference in the response he has been getting. While an event might have raised $500,000 or more for George W. Bush in 2000 or 2004, a Giuliani event is more likely to yield $200,000, he said.
"I'm hoping, when you have a Republican nominee, we'll have much more engagement," the Republican fundraiser said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) continued to struggle this summer after a devastating second-quarter fundraising collapse. But aides expressed confidence that though McCain's numbers will not compare with his rivals', he will have enough. His campaign is planning a six-state fundraising swing, with a major event scheduled in New York City.
One adviser said that McCain's fundraising has picked up since a well-reviewed debate performance and his decision to launch a "no-surrender" tour in which he argues for continuing the U.S. involvement in Iraq.
"There's no question that, politically, having McCain out there on the issue where he has the most credibility and where he's the most knowledgeable . . . helps the poll numbers, helps the press and, in turn, helps the fundraising," the adviser said.