WASHINGTON -- Presidential candidate John McCain had built up campaign funds less than half the size of his main Republican primary rivals three months into the year, leaving his campaign at a financial disadvantage even as he has faltered in the polls.
The Arizona senator disclosed yesterday that his campaign had $5.2 million in cash on hand as of March 31. Former New York Mayor Rudoldph W. Giuliani reported $10.8 million in money available for the primary, and Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, reported $11.9 million when they filed required disclosure reports a day earlier.
McCain's report also shows his campaign more heavily burdened by debts, which reached $1.8 million by the end of the first quarter. Giuliani reported only $89,000 in debts and Romney's only debt was a $2.35 million loan he made to his campaign from personal funds.
McCain raised about $13 million during the period, nearly as much as Giuliani. But McCain spent much more heavily, reporting $8.4 million in expenses.
For much of last year, McCain had been considered the front-runner in the Republican presidential campaign. But he slipped in the polls this year and has been surpassed by Giuliani, whose leadership after Sept. 11 received national acclaim.
This month, McCain announced that he was revamping his fundraising operation, and he cut back his campaign staff to control expenses.
A longtime advocate of campaign finance reform, McCain has a reputation for disdaining the gritty work of fundraising.
Campaigning in Iowa yesterday, he played down the significance of the early fundraising totals.
"I wasn't as personally involved as I should have been, and that was a mistake on my part," he told the Associated Press. "We'll make up for it in the next quarter. For all of us, we're still in spring training."
Still, McCain's fundraising report suggested that he has built up a broader base of small donors. His campaign said it had received money from 51,000 donors. Romney reported receiving contributions from 32,000 people and Giuliani from 28,000.
The larger donor base is often a barometer of enthusiasm among supporters. Also, Romney and Giuliani relied more heavily on donors who have given the maximum $2,300 contribution and cannot make additional donations later during the campaign.
While the first caucus in the presidential primaries is nine months away, the campaigns are already engaged in a furious contest to accumulate financial resources, sometimes referred to as "the money primary."
Many political insiders expect the major candidates to raise $100 million or more before the first vote is cast.
The fundraising totals are especially important this year because the major candidates in both parties have indicated they will not accept public funds for the primaries. As a result, the campaigns no longer need to abide by spending limits associated with federal funding.
Also, the early primaries will be bunched unusually close together next year, and a number of large states have moved their primaries up to Feb. 5, increasing the importance of costly television advertising to reach potential voters.
Mike Dorning writes for the Chicago Tribune.