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Campaign 2012: what fundraising totals will tell us about the candidates

At midnight Thursday, the clock stops on the second quarter of 2011, an important milestone for all the 2012 presidential candidates – including President Obama.

Some points are already clear: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will report far more fundraising than any other Republican candidate. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, new to the race but a proven fundraiser, could post impressive numbers. Mr. Obama, as the incumbent, will post a number that dwarfs that of the GOP field.

For some candidates struggling in the polls, these early numbers could hint at the beginning of the end of their campaigns. Many are trying to lower expectations and are hoping for a positive headline when and if they do better than expected.

All campaigns must disclose their second-quarter totals by July 15, but some will put out figures early – especially if the news is good.

Romney campaign officials, speaking not for attribution, have said they expect to take in between $15 million and $20 million for the quarter. But no other Republican needs to come close.

For all the candidates not named Romney, the question is: “Do they raise enough to remain viable in the eyes of the press and in terms of mounting an on-the-ground campaign in caucus states and a media campaign in primary states?” says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington.

Already, he says, some could have trouble meeting that threshold. At the top of that list is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who lost most of his campaign staff, including his fundraisers, earlier this month over his unconventional approach (e.g., not a lot of travel to early states). The campaign-finance reports, which require disclosures on expenses, could show Mr. Gingrich’s campaign in the red.

Also in potentially questionable territory, financially, are former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Mr. Pawlenty entered the race with high expectations as a two-term governor who was on John McCain’s shortlist for a running mate during the 2008 campaign. But he has yet to catch on in polls, and without buzz, it can be difficult to attract donors.

Mr. Santorum was always a long shot. He lost his Senate reelection bid in 2006 by 18 points, and he’s best known for his conservative views on social issues – not the central concern of voters.

Two of the candidates – Mr. Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman – have personal fortunes to fall back upon if needed. In the 2008 cycle, Romney put some $45 million of his own money into the campaign, out of a total $110 million he spent. This time around, he has not used any of his own money.

Mr. Huntsman has said he won’t “self-fund,” but he has already acknowledged he loaned himself some cash to “prime the pump.”

Huntsman entered the race on June 21, and so, like Representative Bachmann, faces lower expectations. But if Bachmann comes in substantially higher in funds raised than Huntsman – and others who have been in the race much longer – that could be a harbinger of her strength.

In the 2010 campaign, Bachmann raised $13.5 million, more than any other House candidate, including members of the GOP leadership. As a tea party favorite, she pulled in small donations from across the United States, and she’s eligible to use the $2 million left over for her presidential run.

Another fundraising force is libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. He reliably polls at 7 to 10 percent of the GOP electorate and, like Bachmann, gets small donations from all over the country. Representative Paul himself acknowledges he can’t win the nomination, but he’s trying to make a point – that his ideas matter – by finishing the quarter at $5 million.

“In order for the establishment to stand up and take notice, this reporting period must show the maximum possible money raised,” Paul said in a June 30 e-mail to supporters.

Obama doesn’t have a primary challenge, so he’s cashing up for the general election. His campaign has put out an expectation that between the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee, they will take in a combined $60 million. Four years ago, in the second quarter of 2007, the Obama campaign raised $31 million.

All told, he raised $750 million for the last campaign, and that’s his benchmark for 2012. Republicans are saying he will raise $1 billion.

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