Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- The excessive attention being paid to the huge sums of money raised by the Democratic presidential front-runners overlooks an important irony in recent political history: The best-funded candidates often lose in the early caucuses and primaries.

Ask Joe Trippi, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's campaign manager in the 2003-2004 presidential election cycle. Dean was far and away the high fund-raiser in 2003, which made him the prohibitive favorite for the nomination. At least that's what the national press corps believed and reported.

By the end of the fourth quarter of 2003, just days before the Iowa caucuses, Dean had raked in $14 million more, while cash-strapped Sen. John Kerry reported raising an anemic $2.5 million. But Kerry trounced Dean in back-to-back contests in Iowa and New Hampshire and went on to win the nomination.

This is the cautionary tale being discussed in backrooms by campaign strategists for some of the second-tier Democratic hopefuls, and by many election analysts and fund-raisers. They think that the Washington press corps has exaggerated the importance of big money at this early stage of the campaign. "Historically, the amount of money raised in the pre-primary cycle has not been a good indication of who wins the nomination," Trippi told me.

An adviser to former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards' presidential campaign, Trippi hopes that the Democrats' 2004 vice-presidential nominee will turn out to be one of those come-from-behind surprises. Edwards has been stuck in third place for months in all the national polls but remains a serious contender. Still, there's a lot of historical evidence behind Trippi's point.

The year before the 2004 campaign officially began, Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the party's 2000 vice-presidential nominee, led in all the early polls and Dean was breaking all money-raising records over the Internet. But both of them were abysmal failures in the primaries.

"Why does money draw so much attention by the press? They can only report on two things at this early juncture -- polls and who's winning the fund-raising race, neither of which, by the way, is a good indicator of who wins," Trippi said.

Perhaps the classic example of this belongs to Jimmy Carter's former vice president, Walter Mondale, who by the end of 1983 had raised $9.4 million and led in all the polls. "But a guy by the name of (Colorado Sen.) Gary Hart, who had a message and not much money at all, beat him in the primaries and actually won more convention delegates," Trippi said. If party bigwigs had not corralled the unpledged super-delegates on Mondale's behalf, Hart would have been the nominee.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.