WASHINGTON – Sen. John McCain may be trying to lower expectations as the 2008 presidential candidates prepare to release their fundraising tallies for the first quarter of this year, but a chief rival says the Arizona Republican is merely playing the expectations game.
Candidates in the top tier in both parties know they will be judged by the fundraising totals that are released on March 31.
Campaigning in New Hampshire on Saturday, McCain said he will not meet his money goals. He blamed his late start and a busy Senate schedule for the lower receipts, estimating that he will end up with something under the $30 million mark behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
But a Romney fundraiser with access to the candidate's totals told "The Hotline" newsletter on Sunday that McCain is playing with perceptions. Romney will probably raise less than $20 million this quarter.
"McCain will be in first," said the aide, adding that by trying to suggest that McCain will fall behind Romney, McCain is imposing an artificial goal for the Romney campaign, which it never intended to meet.
Regardless of the game, most analysts agree that the upcoming fundraising figures will be a measure of a candidate's strength.
"This is a race for political dollars and money is the first primary, and in the absence of voting you have the March 31 figures and people are going to judge candidates strength or weakness based on how well they do," said former Democratic National Committee Chairman Steve Grossman.
"Money is a tremendous factor," said Brad Blackman, a former deputy assistant to President Bush. "It will be a factor in this campaign. Unfortunately, those who don't have the ability to raise money, don't have the ability to be in this race."
Despite the emphasis on fundraising, White House political strategist Karl Rove told Republicans in Michigan on Saturday that it's not just the money that matters.
"We were outspent by $124 million [in the 2004 race]," Rove said. "We were outspent in this state by about $8 million. We were outspent in Ohio by $15 million. The party of the fat cats, that ain't us."
Ohio was considered the swing state that clinched the presidency for George W. Bush over Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in 2004.
Democrats don't call their donors fat cats either, but fat checks are welcome. Sen. Hillary Clinton pulled in an estimated $2 million on Saturday night from some A-list movie stars and other Beverly Hills supporters. The private, VIP fundraiser of about 1,000 guests was held at the estate of billionaire Ron Burkle.
On Clinton's Web site, her husband, former President Bill Clinton, is urging supporters to join the March fundraising frenzy.
"I know Hillary will be the best president," he says in the online video. "If you agree, I hope you will send in a contribution to support her campaign. And please, do it by the March 31st deadline."
Strategists from both parties predict the 2008 campaign will cost each major party's nominee a record amount -- $500 million.
The McCain and Romney camps agree that the numbers out in mid-July will be better indicators of the candidates' viability. Those figures will reveal how much the campaigns have spent and what is remaining in their bank accounts.
FOX News' Julie Kirtz contributed to this report.