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Not so fast, campaign front-runners

Times Staff Writer

After months of intensive campaigning, record fundraising and unusually high voter interest, the 2008 presidential campaign has lost its early front-runners on both sides, throwing the races wide open.

Far from clarifying things, last week’s tally of first-quarter fundraising totals dispelled the air of inevitability that the putative favorites -- Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona -- spent years trying to create.

But enough doubts surround each of the other leading candidates to prevent any from breaking loose and emerging as the one to beat. And enough questions remain about the contours of the race -- including which states will vote on which dates and whether anyone else jumps in -- that the only certainty appears to be many more months of grind-it-out campaigning.

“A year ago, there was a clear Clinton scenario, a clear McCain scenario” for winning their respective party nominations, said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of a nonpartisan campaign newsletter in Washington. “The question was whether someone would challenge them. Now it’s clear other candidates have caught the public’s attention, caught donors’ attention. The result is a pair of races that are both very, very competitive.”

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The 2008 contest always promised to be a fierce one, with no president or vice president running for the first time in decades. More than a dozen candidates are competing, and together they have raised about $130 million in the first three months of the year, a record.

What has surprised longtime political observers is the early engagement of voters.

About half of respondents to a national poll released last week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center said they were closely following news of the presidential campaign, compared with 27% at about this point in 2004. Much of the interest comes from Democrats, who were more likely to be following campaign coverage than Republicans, according to the Pew survey.

“There’s a lot of anger” among Democrats, and a greater level of dissatisfaction with the direction of the country among voters in general, said Michael Dimock, Pew’s associate director. “Thinking about who will replace Bush is a much more intriguing prospect, because there’s just so much frustration.”

There are other signs that, for now at least, the hunger for change is helping Democrats.

In Iowa, New Hampshire and other early-voting states, Democratic candidates have been drawing unusually large crowds, typically outnumbering those who come to see the Republican hopefuls. And it is not just curiosity seekers turning out for Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois -- who seek to become, respectively, the first female and first African American president.

Last month in Las Vegas, Democratic strategist Gail Tuzzolo booked a room for 60 people to hear former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards speak on a Saturday morning. More than 300 showed up, and that was before news of his wife’s diagnosis of renewed cancer stoked interest in Edwards’ bid.

“Every day I get calls asking, ‘When is caucus training?’ and ‘When are the candidates showing up again?’ ” said Tuzzolo, who is helping Nevada prepare for the second vote on the Democratic presidential-nomination calendar, on Jan. 19. “Every time we schedule something, we get at least twice the turnout we expected.”

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Another benchmark is the money raised by the two sides. For the first time since careful record-keeping began in the 1970s, the field of Democratic presidential hopefuls have collectively out-raised the Republicans. Though few expect Democrats to retain such a financial edge through November 2008, the totals -- $80 million for Democrats and $50 million for Republicans in the first quarter of the year -- were evidence of the energy and enthusiasm flowing their way.

“People who are out of power are hungry to get into power,” said Michael Schroeder, a former California Republican Party chairman who is leading efforts in the state for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Although money is just one gauge of support -- and not the most reliable, history has shown -- last week’s fundraising figures represented something tangible for political insiders to parse. The result was a consensus that an already competitive contest had been scrambled even further.

Clinton set a fundraising record, pulling in about $26 million from January through March. However, even with her political brand name and the backing of many party heavyweights, she barely surpassed the $25 million collected by Obama, who is making his first try for national office and already has twice as many donors. (Many of them gave relatively small amounts, well below contribution limits -- meaning, significantly, that they can give again.)

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Clinton strategist Howard Wolfson shrugged off concerns about the senator losing her front-runner status. “I’ve never used that word,” he said. “We focus on running our campaign. I’ll leave the prognostications to others.”

Now it must be seen whether Obama, who has been criticized as lacking specifics on the stump, can capitalize on his fundraising prowess. “Because his campaign is less experienced, he could turn into Howard Dean or he could turn into Jimmy Carter,” said Christian Grose, a Vanderbilt University associate professor of political science, citing two dark horses whose fortunes took sharply different turns. “Obama is still a pretty big question mark.”

The third candidate in the Democrats’ top tier, Edwards, raised a credible $14 million. More important, he sits atop polls in Iowa, the first caucus state, and edged past Obama in a new survey to place second behind Clinton in New Hampshire, host of the first primary. Still, by his own admission, Edwards is on untested ground by seeking the White House at a time his wife is fighting incurable cancer.

The picture on the Republican side is even more complicated as a result of McCain’s third-place finish in the initial round of fundraising. “We had hoped to do better,” campaign manager Terry Nelson conceded.

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The Arizona senator, who has essentially been running for president since he lost the GOP nomination in 2000, raised $12.5 million, compared with nearly $21 million for Romney and $15 million for former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

“He did it to himself. He tried so much to be the Republican he is not,” said Ed Sarpolus, an independent pollster in Michigan, referring to McCain’s move away from the maverick stance that fueled his insurgent bid the last time he ran. “It’s cost him fundraising and it’s cost him votes.”

McCain has since announced steps to revamp his campaign, including an overhaul of the finance department and plans for a series of policy speeches later this month.

But Romney and Giuliani have their own problems, with conservatives in particular, for reasons evident in the last few days of campaigning.

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Romney, who is fighting charges of opportunism after shifting rightward on several issues, had to defend his depiction of himself as “a hunter pretty much all my life,” which seemed to greatly overstate his credentials as an outdoorsman. (The Associated Press said Romney had only been hunting twice, with the most recent occasion shooting quail last year at a game preserve with Republican donors. Romney responded by saying he had hunted “small varmints” for much of his life.)

Giuliani, the GOP leader in many polls, restated his support for keeping abortion legal, choosing South Carolina -- where Christian conservatives hold particular sway -- to do so.

“I don’t see a clear front-runner for the Republicans,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Atlanta’s Emory University, “simply because I think all of them have serious liabilities in terms of appealing to Republican primary voters.”

Perhaps sensing an opening, two high-profile Republicans are contemplating bids: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Fred Thompson, the actor and former U.S. senator from Tennessee.

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

Times staff writers Cathleen Decker and Dan Morain contributed to this report.


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