With less than two weeks to go, the political parties, candidates and independent groups that have turned this year's presidential race into the first billion-dollar campaign are still raising and spending money like never before.
During the first 18 days of October, organizations with interest in the campaign spent more than $42.8 million on advertising alone, the Federal Election Commission disclosed Wednesday.
The top spenders were the two major political parties, United Auto Workers and the National Rifle Assn.
Other so-called independent 527 groups, named after a section of the tax code that governs them, continued to pour money into TV ads and get-out-the-vote operations at a furious pace.
Since Oct. 1, the self-described Swift Boat Vets and POWs for Truth spent $3.4 million on ads attacking Sen. John F. Kerry. The Progress for America Voter Fund, which also supports President Bush, spent $2.3 million. The Media Fund, a liberal group, spent $3.2 million and the League of Conservation Voters, a pro-Kerry group, has spent $1.1 million this month so far.
In Internal Revenue Service reports filed Wednesday, America Coming Together, a group that is concentrating on getting Kerry supporters to the polls in battleground states, reported raising another $10.8 million in the first two weeks of October alone. It spent $7.1 million.
New groups are forming all the time. On Tuesday, Americans for Coal Jobs Voter Fund, a pro-Bush 527, reported spending $26,000 on ads to air in coal-producing areas of such battleground states as Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
These record levels of spending led the Center for Responsive Politics -- a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group that tracks money in campaigns -- to project that the cost of this year's presidential race would top $1.2 billion.
With congressional races included, the center predicted Wednesday that spending on all federal elections this year would cost $3.9 billion, compared with the $3 billion spent four years ago.
The totals are based on conservative estimates. They showed $1 billion more in individual contributions than in 2000. Part of the reason lies with a change in a new campaign finance law, which banned corporate and union contributions but increased the limits for individual donations.
Although the individual limit doubled to $2,000 in the presidential race, nearly as many individuals -- 106,595 -- have given the maximum contribution this election as those who did in 2000 when the top contribution was $1,000.
Contributions from political action committees, or PACs, which historically are not a mainstay of presidential campaigns, also are estimated to have increased by 33% in the past four years, primarily due to changes in the law.
Women also are contributing a bigger share of individual donations this year than at anytime since 1989. They gave 28.9% of large donations to all federal candidates, PACs and political parties this year, compared with 26.1% of that money in 2000.
Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said he thought that wealthy donors could be bolstering their giving by getting their spouses to contribute as well.
Noble said the projections showed that the political parties, which were expected to have trouble raising money because of the ban on union, corporate and unlimited donations, flourished under the new law.
The Democratic National Committee has spent about $79 million since August on ads supporting Kerry. The party, which reported Wednesday that it had about $40 million in cash at the end of September, began appealing for more money. The DNC raised $62.8 million in September -- nearly double the amount collected by their Republican counterparts -- but spent $77 million.
Former President Clinton, recovering from surgery, sent out a fundraising appeal Wednesday to 5 million Democrats via e-mail. "With some people already casting their ballots, the election of 2004 is now underway, and nothing less than the future of our country is at stake," he said.
Liberal 527s continued to plead for money or volunteers this week as well. Ellen Malcolm, president of America Coming Together, asked supporters to take time off from work on election day.
"At 86 ACT offices and hundreds of volunteer staging locations across the battleground states, voter lists and maps are being prepared and thousands of vans are waiting to shuttle voters to the polls," she said in an e-mail.
MoveOn PAC also asked its members to go to key states, arrive as early as Oct. 30 and stay through election day. "This historic election will be won or lost in the last 72 hours, in a few battleground neighborhoods," the organization said.
The Republican National Committee, which began running $5 million in independent ads on behalf of Bush last week, had $71 million in cash as of Oct. 1, money it was free to use to help the president's reelection. It raised $34.5 million in September and spent $56.8 million.
The Bush campaign reported spending $32 million on advertising in September. The campaign had about $8.2 million in a legal compliance fund as well, money that could be used if the election results were contested.
Bush and Kerry both have tens of millions of dollars that they have not yet distributed.
Kerry's latest spending figures were unavailable.