Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton lived hand to mouth during the rush of presidential primaries while Democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama outspent her and put money in the bank.
New Federal Election Commission reports show Obama raised at a clip of nearly $2 million a day in February, an open spigot of money that left him with $30 million in the bank for March.
Clinton had her best fundraising month as well, at $34.5 million. But counting her debts to vendors she ended with a net $3 million. And that’s not factoring the $5 million she lent her campaign and has not paid back.
The current respite between primaries — the next one is April 22 in Pennsylvania — may cut back on some of the spending. It also denies the two campaigns the head-to-head contests that drive fundraising.
“Fundraising has always been event-driven,” said Donald Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman. “The American people just don’t sit around trying to think up ways of giving up money. Something has to draw attention to the need.”
Fowler, a superdelegate who has endorsed Clinton, conceded that Obama has a network that is better able to raise money quickly. But Obama himself played down his March fundraising on Friday.
“February was pretty exceptional,” Obama told reporters in Oregon, adding that the campaign surprised even itself with the level of Internet fundraising. “I don’t think we would expect to sustain that pace because we don’t have a primary every week.”
But even though he outspent Clinton 2-to-1 heading into the March 4 contests in Texas and Ohio, he lost both those primaries, though he held the edge in a Texas caucus held the same day. Clinton also won the Rhode Island primary that day. Obama’s only clear victory was in Vermont.
“The Obama campaign spent gobs of money leading up to March 4th and we were vastly outspent in every state and the result was three big wins out of four for Senator Clinton,” said Clinton spokesman Jay Carson.
Still, Obama’s fundraising prowess has made states that initially seemed to heavily favor Clinton, like Texas, more competitive.
On Friday, a month before the primary in Pennsylvania, Obama launched three ads in the state, two of them brand new. One is a 60-second commercial that is mostly biographical; the other two are 30-second spots that portray Obama as a politician who fights special interests and who works in a bipartisan way. He trails Clinton in polls conducted in Pennsylvania.
In a bit of good financial news for Clinton, she made inroads in February with small donors, a group that has mostly flocked to Obama. Clinton raised half of her money — $17 million — in contributions of $200 or less, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. Obama tapped those donors, many of whom give through the Internet, for $30.5 million.
The protracted Democratic contest has been good for Sen. John McCain, who has locked up the Republican nomination. McCain raised only $11 million in February, a fifth of Obama’s total and a third of Clinton’s.
McCain has picked up his fundraising pace for March, and his advisers say that as long as Obama and Clinton are criticizing each other McCain has a relatively open path to introduce himself to a broader national electorate.
“Right now the two of them are running in individual states against each other, not against John McCain,” said McCain senior adviser Charlie Black.
The disparity in fundraising between the Democratic candidates and McCain is also drawing attention to the roles that the national political parties could play in the contest. On that front, the Republicans hold a clear advantage now.
The Republican National Committee reported $25 million cash on hand at the end of February compared to about $4.5 million, after debts, for the Democratic National Committee.
“The imbalance between the DNC and the RNC is a little more lopsided that it should be, than you would like it to be,” Fowler said. “But when the crunch comes they’ll have plenty of money.”
McCain reported $8 million cash on hand — $3 million of which is for the general election. At month’s end, McCain still owed $3 million on a loan, but he paid that off this week, aides said.
Wealthier contributors to all three presidential candidates have donated for both the primary and general elections, doubling their allowable giving from $2,300 to $4,600. But the general election money can only be used in the fall. Whoever loses the nomination would have to return that money to the donors. Clinton has been the most aggressive at raising general election money, with nearly $22 million in the bank. Obama has $8 million set aside for the fall.
Obama, as the delegate and money leader in the race, has found himself staving off both Clinton and McCain in recent weeks. His campaign underscored the challenge in a fundraising appeal Thursday.
“No one could have imagined it would go on this long, or that we’d have to fight this battle on two fronts at the same time,” Obama campaign manager David Plouffe wrote in an e-mail to potential donors. “We’ve got to take on both Senator Clinton and Senator McCain at the same time.”
In a testament to the financial heft behind the Democrats, Obama and Clinton together spent more in a month than McCain has for the entire yearlong campaign.
McCain has now spent $58.4 million in his primary bid, surpassing the $50 million limit he would have faced if he participated in the public financing system he had been certified to join. McCain has decided not to accept the public matching funds, but the FEC wants him to assure regulators that he did not use the promise of public money as collateral for the loan he obtained late last year. Bank and campaign lawyers have said McCain did not.
While eschewing public funds for the primary, McCain has called on Obama to accept public financing with him for the fall campaign. Such a step would limit both candidates to about $85 million to be spent from September to Election Day in November. Obama has hedged, setting several conditions before he would consider taking public money. Few Democrats believe Obama should abandon his prodigious fundraising, which could generate far more than the public funding would permit.
McCain is keeping his options open. Last month he filed documents to create a “compliance fund” — an account used by publicly financed candidates so they can accept private donations to cover legal expenses and other exempted costs.