WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential candidates got the best Christmas present possible from former Vice President Al Gore when he opted to stay out of the 2004 presidential elections. The decision made him a winner as well. It could not have been an easy choice, but it was sound and courageous.

One of the great cartoons of the year was one that depicts Gore sitting in front of the television and reacting to a story about the Republicans’ midterm-election victories. The fact that the party that has won the presidency in the preceding election almost always loses seats in the midterm elections leads him to exclaim, “See, more proof that I won!”

The first of January in the year before a presidential election is a big day. It is the day in which contributions to campaigns for presidential candidates can be eligible for matching funds. What better way to make an official starting time for the race? The candidates seem to respect it as such.

As the ball in New York City’s Times Square began to drop at the stroke of midnight Jan. 1, two Democrats, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, had thrown their hats into the ring and created official fundraising committees. Three others have their opening packages all set and are ready to be delivered. They are Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri.

Florida Sen. Bob Graham is also said to be considering a run for the Democratic nomination. He has long had the ambition and the competence, but just never caught the timing, and time is now running out for him. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle is also looking at his cards. He will make his decision later this month.

The surprise candidate seems to retired Gen. Wesley Clark. Now an investment banker, he has been traveling from his home in Little Rock, Arkansas, to the key early primary states, Iowa and New Hampshire and trolling through the money markets in New York, California and Florida.

Peering into my crystal ball, I see California Gov. Gray Davis staring at the White House, then looking at his political bank account loaded with ample cash to spend. That is too much of a temptation for any political animal. He’ll be there for sure, as will African-American activist Al Sharpton.

It is fitting that the key date is defined by the fundraising rules. Fundraising is the name of the game for now because all of the attentions of the candidates for the next year are focused on getting the money to be competitive in the short run for the delegates in the early months of 2004.

To get the nomination, a candidate will have to raise somewhere over $25 million, perhaps as much as $40 million (including matching funds). And make no mistake about it. It is a fact is that the candidate who has raised the most money in the year before the nomination has won the nomination in every election held under the rules of the 1975 Federal Election Campaign Act.

Kerry dumped $2.5 million from his political action committee into the presidential kitty — so he’s ahead so far. Gephardt is thought to be planning to do the same thing.

The closest early fundraising contest in recent elections was in 2000, when Gore, with $27.8 million at the end of 1999, barely edged out former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley’s $27.2 million campaign war chest according to Federal Election Committee data. Interestingly, the difference came in the amount of matching funds received by the two candidates.

To do his filings, Gore used a private firm specializing in accounting for matching funds. Bradley did his accounting in-house. It cost Gore a few bucks more for the service, but the amount that Bradley’s amateurs are reported to have left on the table eventually added up to more than $1 million. Presidential politics is big business and some skills are best left to the professionals.

The biggest contributor to every presidential candidate (except George W. Bush) has been the U.S. Treasury, which provides matching funds for contributions to candidates who abide by the spending limits enacted as a part of the reforms stemming from the Watergate scandal. Matching funds have contributed more than a third of all of the millions spent in presidential nominating campaigns since 1976.

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