The Republican National Committee (search) raised a record $32.3 million in the first three months of the year, money that will help finance a permanent voter registration effort and other grass-roots organizing.

The RNC finished March with $26.2 million on hand, Chairman Ken Mehlman (search) said Monday. The money it collected in the first quarter tops its fundraising during the same period in 2001 and 2002, before the national party committees were banned from collecting corporate and unlimited donations. It also exceeds its fundraising in early 2003, the first year the parties were limited to contributions from individuals and political action committees.

Mehlman has been traveling the country for weeks raising money. The Republican committee has held at least 19 fundraisers coast to coast. Yet to come is its biggest event of the year: an annual gala headlined by President Bush.

Rather than stockpiling the money to spend close to the fall 2006 elections, the RNC is starting to tap it now for campaign efforts.

"One of my lessons from the 2004 election is that voter registration and grass-roots-building needs to be year-round permanent, which means that in places we're likely to have competitive races in '06, we're now working with state parties to build the grass-roots and to register voters and to make sure we have the grass-roots we need to be successful next year," Mehlman said in a phone interview from Atlanta, where he was raising money.

The RNC's first-quarter fundraising included $10.7 million in March.

In all, the committee received 715,000 individual contributions so far this year and logged 68,200 new donors, Mehlman said.

The Democratic National Committee (search) has not yet released its first-quarter figures.