McCain’s war chest is far from full

Times staff writer

The numbers are stark: Sen. John McCain has raised a third of Sen. Barack Obama’s $240 million for the presidential campaign, and less than half of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s haul.

Renowned for his dislike of fundraising galas, McCain has yet to tap some of the Republican Party’s deepest pockets. The Arizona senator is also struggling to lure low-dollar donors who use the Internet to fill Democratic coffers. Obama has raised more in small donations than McCain has raised in his entire campaign.

McCain is ahead or tied with the Democratic rivals in most polls, and some experts say he almost certainly will have sufficient money to run competitively in the fall.

But not all Republicans are so sure. McCain’s uneasy relationship with fundraising and his inability so far to match the Democrats’ prowess worries many backers.

McCain’s money situation came into sharp focus Sunday when he filed a campaign finance report that showed he had raised only $15.4 million in March, the first full month after he became the presumptive GOP nominee.


By comparison, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts raised almost three times that much in the month after he locked up the Democratic nomination four years ago. McCain ended March with a modest $11.6 million in the bank, despite having few expenses.

Obama, who raised $41.3 million in March, had $51 million left over -- even as the Illinois senator spent $30 million in his fight for the nomination, his report filed Sunday showed. Clinton raised $20 million in March and had $8 million in the bank at the end of the month, her campaign said.

McCain has other cards he can play. One is the Republican National Committee, which is raising more than its Democratic counterpart partly because President Bush, though riding low in the polls, remains a draw. He regularly signs fundraising mailers and headlines galas -- 13 in 2007 and seven this year.

The Democratic National Committee, which traditionally raises less than the RNC, competes for money in this campaign with Obama and Clinton.

The DNC had $5.3 million in the bank at the end of March, compared with $31.2 million for the RNC, which can use that money in a variety of ways to boost McCain’s candidacy. The Arizona senator’s confidantes have taken senior posts in the RNC to ensure that the money is used to his advantage.

Campaign restrictions that McCain helped write limit individual donations to $2,300 to a candidate. But donors can give $28,500 to political parties, which can spend unlimited sums on independent campaigns for their candidates.

The money that McCain is raising is being used for his campaign up to the Republican National Convention in early September. Once he becomes the nominee, he can play another card -- public funding.

McCain probably will accept an $84-million federal grant to run his general election campaign. In his filing Sunday with the Federal Election Commission, McCain disclosed that he refunded $2.6 million to donors who had earmarked their money for the general election.

“He is doing everything that is necessary in order to be in a position to accept the grant if that decision is made,” McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said.

Republicans expect McCain will have little choice but to take the grant. He would be unable to raise much more in private donations, and could make up at least a portion of the shortfall with RNC money.

Democrats probably won’t accept that tax money. They could easily raise more -- maybe twice as much -- for the final fall push.

Obama is fast approaching 1.5 million donors. If each were to give him $100, the Illinois senator would have $150 million for the final two months of the campaign. With that -- plus whatever the Democratic Party raises -- Obama could flood airwaves in swing states.

McCain’s aides brush aside concerns that he won’t be able to raise enough money, even as they admit he can’t match the Democratic nominee.

“It’s not about parity. It is about having enough,” said Steve Schmidt, a McCain senior strategist.

“Between the two committees, we’re going to have sufficient resources,” said Frank Donatelli, a longtime Washington lobbyist who last month took a post with the RNC as chief liaison to McCain’s campaign. “You have to look at McCain in conjunction with RNC. We have a joint fundraising agreement.”

Even with the RNC’s success, there are warning signs. Its fundraising is down from where it was four years ago. In the past, the party relied heavily on small donors.

In 2007, however, the RNC raised $45 million in increments of less than $200, down from $56 million four years earlier, federal election records show.

“It is a measure of the dissatisfaction among the base,” said Anthony J. Corrado Jr., a professor of government at Colby College in Maine who is an expert on campaign finance.

McCain has had the same problem. Although he appeared to receive more small donations in March, small donors made up 13% of McCain’s total as of the end of February -- compared with 26% for Clinton and 41% for Obama, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.

Experts point to a variety of reasons for the GOP’s inability to match the Democratic Party’s Internet receipts. Democratic donors tend to be younger than Republicans, rely more heavily on the Internet and are accustomed to using credit cards to make purchases online.

Republican donors appear to be less trusting that websites will protect their credit card information, and respond to direct mail appeals by writing checks.

That places the GOP at a disadvantage. The cost of generating e-mails is a fraction of the cost of mass mailings. With credit card transactions, candidates gain almost immediate access to the donation.

“That is the real issue facing the McCain campaign at this point. They’re not getting that easy money flowing over the Internet,” Corrado said.

Also adding to McCain’s problems: Some traditional sources of GOP money are leaning Democratic in this campaign.

Obama has received $6.8 million from the securities and investment industry, compared with McCain’s $3 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Clinton has received $5.7 million in real estate industry donations; McCain, $2.5 million.

Some individual donors who raise large sums from their friends remain on the sidelines. Through the end of March, McCain received money from less than one-fourth of Bush’s largest fundraisers, dubbed Pioneers and Rangers, a Times analysis shows.

One such bundler is Los Angeles investor Thomas R. Tellefsen. In the Republican primary, Tellefsen was Mitt Romney’s largest single fundraiser, helping to rake in millions for the former Massachusetts governor.

Romney himself promises to raise $15 million for McCain, and some of Romney’s biggest backers have joined the effort. But not Tellefsen. He said he needed a break from politics after Romney pulled out.

Besides, McCain’s campaign hadn’t contacted him.

“I have not had any communication,” Tellefsen said.

Schmidt said most donors were falling into line. At least 75 Pioneers and Rangers who had been backing other Republicans shifted to McCain in February and March, the Times analysis shows.

New to the McCain fold are Howard Leach of San Francisco, a former Bush ambassador to France, and Sam Fox of St. Louis, Bush’s ambassador to Belgium. Both former Bush fundraisers had backed Romney.

Some McCain critics say the Arizona senator has not yet solidified the GOP base.

Although James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, is unenthusiastic about McCain, Edward Atsinger III, a Bush fundraiser, intends to back him. He is chairman of Salem Communications, the nation’s largest Christian radio network, and one that broadcasts Dobson’s shows.

“I will expend a considerable amount of energy trying to raise money for him,” Atsinger said. “We’re certainly prepared to host events.”

Corrado and other experts say that McCain’s April and May fundraising will help determine whether he’ll have sufficient resources. If he raises $20 million a month through the summer, his backers say, he will be in a good position.

McCain would be in deeper trouble if the Democratic primaries were over. As it is, Obama and Clinton are burning through millions of dollars as they duke it out.

“As long as the Democratic contest continues, he doesn’t need to raise $40 million a month,” said Michael E. Toner, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and a McCain advisor.


Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.