The Republican National Committee's (search) hefty fund-raising advantage over its Democratic rival is already being felt as the 2004 election year gets under way.

With $33.1 million in the bank and more to come, the RNC is laying plans to spend in races up and down the ticket as the Democratic National Committee (search) works to complete its first task: raising $16 million to help promote its presidential nominee.

The parties' finances as the year began offer a striking look at the effect broad new fund-raising restrictions are having. The DNC started with $10 million in the bank, one-third as much as the RNC.

When the restrictions took effect in November 2002, "we lost 80 percent of our disposable income," DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe (search) said in an Associated Press interview. "We have made very tough, hard choices in this building to prepare ourselves for the future."

The law's ban on the raising of "soft money" — corporate, union and unlimited donations - by the national parties cost both committees millions of dollars.

But the RNC long has raised millions more than the DNC in "hard money," limited donations from individuals and political committees that are the only kind the parties can now accept. Soft money was the only financial area where the Democratic committee kept pace with the GOP.

In all, the RNC raised about $105.5 million last year. The DNC raised $42 million. Both spent millions reaching out to potential donors and voters, with Republicans spending millions more than the Democrats.

In the presidential race, each committee can spend roughly $16 million in coordination with its nominee, along with the candidates' own fund raising. While the RNC has all it needs for that and more, the DNC has $10 million raised and about $6 million to go.

McAuliffe expects it will be late March before the DNC accumulates that funding. That means the general-election season will be getting under way just as the DNC starts raising money for TV ads, get-out-the-vote drives and other non-presidential-specific spending.

The RNC's cash advantage will let it pump money into campaigns from the statehouses to the White House while orchestrating a party-wide, get-out-the-vote effort. While the top priority is helping President Bush win re-election, spending will go beyond close presidential states to every state where it is needed.

"It's in our long-term interest to build a bench and have real grass roots and to develop candidates at the local and state level," RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie said.

Despite its healthy budget, Gillespie said the party will watch its dollars. The RNC provides the infrastructure for Republican get-out-the-vote efforts, while Democrats can count on outside groups such as labor unions to do much of that work, Gillespie said.

McAuliffe said his committee plans spending in target presidential states that will also benefit candidates in congressional, state and local races. It's too soon to say whether it will contribute directly to candidates' campaign funds, he said.

McAuliffe spends three to four hours on the phone daily raising money and frequently hits the road for fund-raisers, including events this month in New York City, Detroit, Atlanta and Houston. He sees good news in the DNC's finances: This is the first presidential race in years that it has entered debt-free, and with $10 million hard dollars in the bank.

The RNC's fund-raiser-in-chief is Bush, who raised $14 million for it at one event last fall and will likely match or exceed that this year.

Money isn't everything. A better message and more motivated group of activists can trump another party's financial advantage, said Paul Beck, an Ohio State University political science professor.

But a flush bank account can be a big help. The cash disparity between the RNC and DNC may make itself particularly felt in legislative races, elections involving challengers and voter drives in close races, Beck said.

There are other places within the parties for candidates to turn for campaign cash. Each party has a fund-raising committee for Senate and House candidates, for example.

The GOP's cash advantage has also carried over to those committees. The two Senate committees have been closest in fund raising.

According to their most recent figures, the Senate GOP committee collected $23 million from January through September and had $7.3 million in the bank as October began; the Democratic committee raised $17 million, with $1.2 million on hand.