NEW YORK – The first deadline in the presidential money primary holds promise and pitfalls for Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Locked in a high-profile fight with charismatic rival Barack Obama, Clinton's initial fundraising report will be a test of her strength as the party's front-runner.
Raise millions more than Obama and another chief rival, John Edwards, and the perception that she is the party's inevitable nominee will solidify. A less-than-decisive edge will lend credence to the view that the nomination is truly up for grabs.
The Clinton, Obama and Edwards campaigns have been trying to outfox one another in the expectations game. Each campaign has set a low bar for itself while predicting big numbers for the competition.
Clinton had a clear advantage over her rivals before anyone even established an exploratory committee. Not only could she transfer $11 million from her Senate account, she could tap those same donors for her presidential bid.
Publicly, the Clinton campaign has declared a goal of $15 million, an amount campaign experts expect her to easily double when candidates report their totals for the first quarter ending March 31. After all, she has help from the man once called the fundraiser in chief — former President Clinton.
Clinton's husband will join her at major fundraisers in New York on Sunday and Washington two days later. These events come after she heads to Texas on Friday, where she will attend four events in four cities over two days.
The former president has been the featured guest at a series of exclusive lunches and dinners, where attendees are asked to pony up $4,600 — the maximum allowable contribution — to his wife's campaign.
Hassan Nemazee, a New York financier and longtime Clinton fundraiser, hosted a dinner for about 100 guests Tuesday night with Bill Clinton the marquee attraction. People dined on beet salad and steak at Manhattan's swank Cipriani restaurant, and Clinton stayed past 11:30 p.m.
The event pulled in $500,000 for his wife's campaign.
"I couldn't raise the money for Hillary if people didn't think she was the best candidate and will be the nominee and the president," Nemazee said. "But does it hurt that she has the best fundraiser in the Democratic Party as her surrogate? Not at all."
John Catsimatidis, another longtime Clinton donor, hosted a smaller fundraising dinner with the former president at his home in New York that brought in $275,000 for Hillary Clinton's campaign. Like Nemazee, Catsimatidis said her qualifications persuaded most donors to contribute.
"The Clintons come with a lot of talent and a lot of experience. This country can't afford a president who needs on the job training," Catsimatidis said.
Recently, Bill Clinton signed a campaign fundraising e-mail for his wife that brought in more than $1 million in small donations.
Later this month, Hillary Clinton has fundraising events in San Diego and a star-studded bash in Los Angeles March 24 hosted by billionaire supermarket mogul Ron Burkle. In San Francisco on March 25, she will attend five events in a single day.
The tour will wind down with events in Florida on March 31. Among the highlights is rapper Timbaland's hosting a fundraiser for Clinton at his Miami home.
Still, many Clinton fundraisers acknowledge there is definitely competition for Democratic dollars — especially from Obama, who is hoping to become the first black president.
After 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry announced in January that he would not seek the presidency, about 50 of his former top fundraisers immediately chose sides; about two-thirds went with Obama and the rest with Clinton. Among those who are now backing Obama are Massachusetts entrepreneur Alan D. Solomont and Mark Gorenberg, a California venture capitalist.
Democratic fundraisers said Clinton in recent weeks has been making more inroads with former Kerry financial backers.
Susie Tompkins Buell, the founder of the Esprit clothing line and a major Clinton fundraiser in San Francisco, said many donors she talks to are still undecided about who to support.
"I think Obama has a fantastic future, and there is such a yearning for what he is saying," Buell said. "But beyond the whole woman thing and the whole black thing is the question of who is prepared for this job."
Buell says she tries to urge undecided donors to buy a ticket to a Clinton event and decide for themselves what they think of her.
"When someone who's on the fence finally sees her, the reaction is, 'How can there even be a question?"' Buell said.
Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe, a longtime fundraiser for both Clintons and former Democratic Party chairman, also acknowledged there would be plenty of competition for cash among the entire Democratic field.
"It's the best field we've ever had, and everyone is doing what they need to do," he said.
McAuliffe, who calls himself the Clinton campaign's chief salesman, was in New York and New Jersey this week to preside over dozens of "warm-up" events, where he works on existing donors and pitches new faces to join the team.