The deadline for filing presidential fundraising reports closed Thursday, with officials from nearly every campaign predicting a relatively low dollar total compared with the historic highs at this time in the 2008 cycle.
Campaign aides engaged in the ritual of spinning their tallies as being a firm show of support, blaming the fundraising challenges on circumstances beyond their control and certainly no reflection on their candidates.
Still, the reduced second-quarter total was notable in the camp of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the GOP front-runner in polls and fundraising. Romney aides said he would report raising about $20 million -- less than the $50 million seen as possible by supporters a few months ago and well below the $44 million he had reported by this point in 2007, in his first presidential bid.
President Obama was heading toward $60 million, some of it raised jointly with the Democratic National Committee. At this point in 2007, both he and Hillary Rodham Clinton had reported raising close to that amount for their campaigns.
Candidates must file reports of money received by midnight Thursday with the Federal Election Commission. Campaign receipts for all announced candidates will be released July 15, except for those of former Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr., who postponed filing his official candidacy until a few days ago and thus will not have to release details until after Sept. 30.
Does the comparatively low level of fundraising this year suggest an end to the ever-escalating cost of presidential campaigns? Not likely.
"The cumulative amount of money will be lower this quarter," said Michael Malbin, an expert at the Campaign Finance Institute. "But the difference is mostly due to the late start of the campaign."
Candidate fundraising is on a different schedule this year in part because of uncertainty over whether the GOP field is complete. In addition, a poor economy, lack of enthusiasm for many of the candidates and the competing demands of new outside campaign-related groups have kept donations down.
Malbin and other experts predict that by the end of the election cycle, another spending record will have been set, once the cash flowing into the outside groups is included.
While Romney may have raised only $20 million in his official campaign fund, an independent Super PAC set up by his supporters is expected to report raising several million additional dollars. By law, Romney cannot steer money to this new kind of PAC, which resulted from a Supreme Court decision last year that made it legal for individuals, unions and corporations to give unlimited funds to such entities.
Anthony J. Corrado Jr., a campaign finance expert at Colby College in Maine, predicts this cycle will see "hundreds of millions" in contributions to these new groups, whose activities will change the nature of campaigns and, perhaps, the role of the political parties. The groups differ from traditional candidate or party PACs, to which contributions are strictly limited.
Though diminished compared with the last cycle, Romney's start is already impressive to Corrado, even if some of it represents sleight of hand. The former Massachusetts governor's campaign told reporters in May that he had raised $10 million in a one-day phone-a-thon in Las Vegas. But the amount actually represented pledges gathered earlier and tallied that day. Still, it showed that Romney continues to have access to a loyal and substantial group of donors, Corrado said.
Although their fundraising tallies were not available Thursday, the other GOP candidates are expected to report receipts lower than Romney's.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann has an extraordinary fundraising base for a House member. She surpassed all other members last year to raise about half of her $13 million in personal campaign funds from donors giving $200 or less. But she opened her presidential campaign only recently and her numbers may suffer because of that.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has worked hard to raise both money and his name recognition. Supporters expect that he will report several million dollars in donations, well below Romney's total. Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman, is also expected to report far less than Romney, although he has a devoted following and has had success in Internet fundraising.
A campaign official working for Huntsman said late Thursday that the former ambassador had raised more than $4 million, with "less than half of that amount" coming from contributing his own funds.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is unlikely to have raised much, but he has an excuse: His senior staff, including some fundraisers, resigned en masse. A campaign aide said Gingrich was hurrying to raise as much as possible, holding a conference call with 12,000 small donors early in the week and spending two days raising funds in California.
"I know that as a supporter, it's been a tough ride the past few weeks," Gingrich wrote in an email to supporters Tuesday. " The June 30 fundraising report is a critical show of support in these early stages of the campaign. Giving $10 now is like giving $100 in January."
Kim Geiger and Melanie Mason in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.