The crowded Democratic field has candidates competing for dollars as they vie for primary votes. With cash tight, most need to win soon to stay in the race.
Only Howard Dean (search) with his devoted base of Internet donors seems to have the resources it would take to ride out several early losses, like his third-place finish to John Kerry (search) and John Edwards (search) in the Iowa caucuses. But fund-raising experts caution even that money could dry up fast if Dean doesn't start winning. Next up is the New Hampshire primary (search) on Tuesday.
"The same phenomena that brings it in dries it up," said Rick Davis, who ran Republican Sen. John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, which raised more than $4 million online in the month after McCain won the New Hampshire primary and before he withdrew from the race.
"I think what Dean is probably witnessing right now is the shift. What fueled his campaign, especially a lot of his contributions, was the party was pretty united against the war in Iraq," Davis said. "Now they want to beat Bush."
All the candidates must pick and choose where they spend in the upcoming contests.
If the millions they've collectively spent in early voting states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina seems like a lot, looming on March 2 is Super Tuesday. Eleven states, including costly California and New York, have primaries then.
"That is the day of reckoning when it comes to the money," Democratic media consultant Bill Carrick said. "It's so much money none of them can even imagine it."
Carrick, formerly with Dick Gephardt's campaign, knows all about reckonings. Gephardt lost Monday's Iowa caucuses and dropped out; he had enough money to go on but knew his prospects of continuing to raise it were slim, Carrick said.
Gephardt's departure from the race should be a warning to the remaining candidates, including fund-raising leader Dean, said Tony Coelho, chairman of Democrat Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.
"He can afford to ride it out as long as he starts cutting costs," Coelho said. "He has extensive operations throughout a network of states, so the cost of his campaign is the most costly of all of them."
Dean raised roughly $40 million last year, nearly twice as much as anyone else in the Democratic race. Despite his third-place Iowa showing, by Thursday Dean had raised roughly $590,000 of the $1 million he asked donors to give before New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday.
Kerry and Edwards have also seen hundreds of thousands of dollars come in this week.
Like Dean, Iowa winner Kerry is trying to raise $1 million this week. The campaign had collected about $800,000 by Thursday evening. Edwards raised at least $500,000 online since Monday night.
In the past several presidential elections, the candidate who raised the most in the preceding year became his party's nominee.
One of them, 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, said candidates can afford to live hand-to-mouth right now, not spending much beyond New Hampshire and the Feb. 3 primaries.
"You're going to go through ups and downs," Dukakis said. "If you're doing better and better, the money will come."
Most campaigns are keeping fund-raising particulars to themselves, including how much cash they have on hand. They won't reveal details until they file finance reports Jan. 31, and those will cover only Oct. 1-Dec. 31.
Next behind Dean in fund raising are Kerry and Edwards, whose campaigns say they have at least enough to make it through Feb. 3. Kerry, who loaned his campaign about $6.8 million last year on top of more than $20 million in fund raising, will decide next month whether he needs to put in more personal cash.
Dean and Kerry are skipping public financing. That means they can spend as much as they want but won't get monthly government checks matching the first $250 of each contribution.
Edwards, Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman are accepting public funding, making them eligible for up to $18.6 million in "matching funds." They are limited to about $45 million in primary spending.
Edwards raised $20 million from January 2003 to the Iowa caucuses.
New Hampshire is the first contest for Clark and Lieberman. Clark raised nearly $15 million last year, started January with at least $10 million left and expects to raise more than $3.5 million this month. Lieberman raised $12 million to $15 million last year.