For candidates, money one key to winning formula

May 21, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The buzz in the political community this week is about how Elizabeth Dole's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination may be in trouble because she is having problems raising money. A month ago, all the talk was about how Gov. George W. Bush of Texas had raised such an outlandish amount he just might be unbeatable.

All these judgments are being made, of course, before either of them has formally declared to run for the GOP presidential nomination. Also, this comes before most voters have begun paying even minimal attention to the contest for president next year.

So the notion of Mrs. Dole being in trouble or Mr. Bush being in clover because of money alone is, at the least, premature.

But the lesson, nonetheless, is that money has become so important in U.S. politics that it sometimes bends everything out of shape -- including the judgment of political professionals and the press.

$20 million bids

It would be hard to quarrel with the proposition that money has become the single most important credential for presidential candidates. The conventional wisdom holds that a candidate needs to raise $20 million in the year before the primaries to qualify as a legitimate contender.

The $20 million is needed, the argument goes, because the front-loading of the primary schedule has moved New York and California, among others, into the early stages of the process. Of course, buying television air time in such large states is expensive.

TV ads

Thus, candidates who take lumps in the first precinct caucuses in Iowa and the first primary in New Hampshire can keep themselves viable if they have large amounts of money to spend on commercials in later contests.

For example, Bob Dole was able to survive losing New Hampshire in 1996 because he had the money and the support to reverse the defeat he suffered there at the hands of Pat Buchanan.

Gephardt's failure

From the opposite end of the spectrum, Rep. Dick Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat, was doomed after he finished third in New Hampshire in 1988 because he lacked the money to run visible campaigns in most of the Southern states that held the next round of primaries.

Money also can be enough all by itself to make someone at least a factor in presidential politics. Ross Perot was an influential figure in 1992 because the media paid attention to him. That happened because reporters knew Mr. Perot was going to spend the $50 million or more needed to put himself on every television screen.

The same pattern is evident in the press treatment of publisher Steve Forbes today. The wealthy publisher has never caught the fancy of many voters. But Mr. Forbes has shown he is willing to spend the kind of money that will make him difficult to ignore.

The message

Even granting the importance of money, however, it is hardly a substitute for a message that will attract caucus and primary voters. In a presidential campaign, voters pay enough attention to the candidates in debates and on the daily news reports so that 30-second commercial spots are not so likely to be decisive.

If Mr. Bush proves to be a candidate with nothing to say or the wrong way of saying it, he could go the way of Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, the early money champion four years ago. If Mrs. Dole is a convincing candidate, the Republicans in Iowa or New Hampshire will respond and her money problems will vanish overnight. Money is important but it isn't everything.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 5/21/99

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