WASHINGTON -- The unasked question about the $26 million Hillary Clinton collected in the first quarter is: Can she keep up that fund-raising pace? The answer: It's unlikely because a big chunk of the New York senator's contributions came from donors who gave the maximum $2,300 they are allowed by law to donate to one candidate in a single year. What most of the news stories did not report: She cannot go back to these donors again until next year.
Finding new donors to take their place is going to be a lot harder, even for legendary moneyman Terry McAuliffe, the fund-raising genius who has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the Clintons' voracious campaign-finance machine.
The other unasked question in the first quarter money race is about the nature of Sen. Barack Obama's equally impressive $25.6 million take over this same period.
He achieved something far more lucrative than nearly matching Clinton's fund-raising prowess: His 100,000-plus donors -- twice that of Clinton's list -- were largely smaller contributors who gave less than $100. That means he will be able to go back to them multiple times over the course of the year.
Democratic campaign strategists tell me he will likely raise $100 million or more from these donors before the year is out. Clinton's "maxed out" haul was sizeable and a record, but Obama is better positioned to raise more than her this year. "With Obama, we're talking real money that keeps on giving," one veteran party fund-raiser told me.
"Hillary's dependency on the maxed-out donor worked well for her, but you have to question whether they can sustain the $26 million she raised in the first three months. That's more likely to decline in the second quarter, while Obama's contributions are likely to grow," said Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean's 2004 presidential-primary bid.
"She has to do significantly better in the low-donor base, or she is going to have less money," Trippi said.
Other campaign-finance veterans agreed with Trippi's assessment and said that political reporters overplayed Clinton's higher fund-raising total, while missing the larger significance of Obama's much broader appeal among smaller, often repeat, donors.
"Those contributors who gave the maximum to Clinton ... they are through with Hillary. She has to find new contributors or new small-donor supporters," said Jan Baran, a prominent campaign-finance attorney here.
"Do the math," said James Bonham, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's former executive director. "These donors will give multiple times to Obama's campaign and often more than they contributed the first time around." This is the low-donor conundrum that now dogs Clinton's front-runner candidacy and makes Obama a much more competitive political force in next year's fast-paced, front-loaded primaries when the nominee could be all but chosen by the middle of February.
But as the old saw goes, money isn't necessarily everything, as Joe Trippi can attest. Howard Dean was raking in record sums of money from low donors over the Internet toward the end of 2003, upwards of $50 million, before his campaign crashed and burned in Iowa after a series of gaffes and blunders. Obama, a careful and disciplined campaigner, is unlikely to make that mistake. Clinton leads him in the national polls right now, by a nine-point average and in cash on hand, too. But he's maintained his second-place position just behind her for some months now, creeping closer, and has managed to drive a wedge deep into the fabled Clinton fund-raising base.
If, as several top Democratic strategists predict, Clinton's second-quarter fund-raising take begins to decline and Obama begins raising more money from a growing list of Internet-heavy donors, he could be in a much better financial position when the primary race moves into overdrive in the Super Tuesday battlegrounds on Feb. 5.
That's when a dozen or so states, including the big mega-states of New York, New Jersey and California, will hold the equivalent of a near-national primary in which only the richest candidates will be able to compete. That's when "cash is going to be king," Bonham told me.
The only way to campaign in so many major states on a single day is through television ads, and these states are among the costliest campaign playing fields in the country. Obama and former North Carolina senator John Edwards may be the only two candidates who will be financially capable of competing with Clinton at this level.
Although Edwards, with $14 million, raised less in the first quarter than his two rivals, he, too, is well positioned with his list of 40,000 donors. The reason: His campaign war chest, like Obama's, is structured with a healthier mix of big and smaller online donors, Trippi said.
Could this be the campaign when the smaller contributors will trump the wealthier fat cats in Democratic presidential politics? Obama strategists who have raised Howard Dean's pioneering fund-raising movement to a higher level are betting this is the year when online donors will rule.