WASHINGTON – Mitt Romney is buying $800,000 in television air time. Candidates are purchasing voter lists in the early states — $100,000 for the Iowa Democratic Party's list and $60,000 for the South Carolina version. And the entire presidential field is buying jet fuel by the planeload.
At the start of a campaign season that is already moving at lightning speed, presidential candidates are spending money at unprecedented rates. And these are only the initial investments in an election that strategists from both parties predict could cost each major party's nominee $500 million.
It's a number that's hard to fathom — a $1 billion dollar contest. It would not only be a record amount but nearly double what President Bush and Democrat John Kerry combined spent just three years ago.
And the big spending is yet to come.
Advertising accounts for the largest expense in a political campaign and campaigns are still building their organizations and raising money. But political veterans inside and outside say the level of political activity so far is extraordinary and is testing campaign budgets.
How much the campaigns have spent so far won't be evident until next month when they have to file public financial reports for the first three months of the year.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they have a fairly high burn rate," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyists and top strategist and veteran of the 2004 presidential campaign.
The challenge for the campaigns is to keep their fundraising well ahead of their spending.
At the Barack Obama presidential headquarters, there are no freebies. Even staffers must pay for the Illinois Democrat's souvenirs — $20.08 for T-shirts; $2.50 for placards.
Top staffers to Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, have had to triple up during hotel stays. Sen. John McCain has given campaign co-chairman Phil Gramm, a former U.S. senator known as a cost cutter, responsibility for overseeing his campaign's spending.
Obama, whose campaign is being run by the legendarily frugal David Plouffe, was the only Democratic candidate to decline a request from South Carolina Democrats that he donate to the party. And McCain delayed his announcement tour until April, in part to put off the costs of such an undertaking to the next quarter.
Why such an obsession with money now? The White House is a wide open contest for both parties — neither President Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney are running. What's more, about 20 states are considering holding their primaries on Feb. 5 — the equivalent of a national primary that will require huge amounts of spending beginning in September of this year.
Where does all this money go? From decorations — Bush spent nearly $150,000 on balloons, flags, flowers and other filigree in the 2004 campaign — to advertising, the single biggest expense of any campaign.
In 2004, Bush and Kerry had total operating expenses of $572 million. Of that, $312 million — well more than half — went to media consultants to place ads on television and radio. The rest paid for staff salaries, travel, pollsters, fundraising consultants and direct mail. A study by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity concluded that all the 2004 presidential candidates spent $457 million on consultants.
This time four years ago, Elmendorf recalls running Democratic Rep. Dick Gephardt's fledgling campaign with one spokesman and a press assistant. Today, the top-tier candidates in the Republican and Democratic fields have already rented office space and enlisted pollsters, media strategists, communications specialists, opposition researchers, policy advisers, even videographers.
Romney has 65 staffers at his Boston headquarters and 25 in key early primary and caucus states. McCain and Clinton are reported to have even more.
"At this point, there is a combination of spending to raise the money and to create enough of an organization to look like you can go the distance," said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist and campaign manager for Sen. Bob Dole's 1996 presidential run. "It's a fine balance, and the spending numbers at the end of March are almost as important as the total raised."
The campaigns are touting their spending as crucial investments.
"Spending money now is spending money wisely because it will yield a return of both organizational and grass-roots success later," Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said.
Of the top-tier candidates, Obama and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani are operating on the most compressed time. Others such as Romney, McCain, Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards have been courting donors and top strategists for some time.
"We obviously are putting an organization together more quickly than some of the other campaigns who have been putting them together for a while," Obama said in a recent interview.
Obama, who has attracted widespread support and curiosity, has also faced crowds numbering in the thousands — a welcome development for him, to be sure, but also one that has driven up the costs of staging his events.
Romney is on line to spend more than $800,000 this month on advertising in five states as he tries to build up his name recognition and, thus, assure donors that he's a viable contender.
McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona, and Clinton, the Democratic senator from New York, both got off to an early start, staffing their campaigns with high profile veterans. McCain has kept the team he ran with in 2000 and added more big names in politics, such as Terry Nelson, who was President Bush's national political director in 2004. Clinton's team includes loyalists who have helped her Senate campaigns as well as top names from her husband's successful White House runs.
That means big payrolls. In 2004, John Kerry's presidential campaign placed a cap of $12,500 a month for the top campaign officials. This year, salaries are higher and have to last longer.
McCain, for example, is paying John Weaver, his top political adviser, $15,000 a month — a rate now considered standard for top political talent at most campaigns.
McCain, Obama and Clinton also are paying more for travel. They are abiding by new ethics rules adopted by the Senate — but not yet law — that would require senators flying on private jets to pay the full charter costs — not just the equivalent of a first-class fare.
That means they must pay more than candidates who are not in the Senate and not bound by Senate rules, such as Romney, Edwards and Giuliani.
The accelerated primary and caucus schedule and the fundraising demands have made travel an early prerequisite.
"One of the problems they face now is that where the votes are — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — is a very different playing field from where the money is — New York, Illinois, California, Texas and Florida," said Anthony Corrado, an expert on campaign spending and presidential politics at Colby College in Maine.
The chance to reassess spending and fundraising will come next month, after the campaigns examine how their opponents fared during the first three months of the year.
"You're going to see a lot of shake-ups in April," said Reed. "They're going to be, 'Whoa, we can't continue like this. Either we're not raising enough or spending too much or a combination of the two."'