Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney emerged as the Republican fundraising front-runner Monday, building a significant lead over Sen. John McCain, the choice of many Republican stalwarts.
Romney, a wealthy former venture capitalist, lags in most public opinion polls but raised $20.63 million in the first three months of 2007, not counting $2.35 million that he lent himself. The loan, early in his effort, allowed him to build his campaign apparatus.
Romney out-raised the two Republicans who lead him in the polls -- former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani with $15 million and McCain with $12.5 million.
The gap between Romney and McCain took veteran campaign watchers aback and prompted an overhaul of McCain's fundraising operation.
"Clearly, Romney has surprised the field," said Anthony Corrado, a political scientist and presidential campaign finance expert at Colby College in Maine. "Not only has he raised more money than the others, it is fair to say he raised substantially more."
"Wow," said Dan Schnur, who worked on McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. "The irony is that it is a pretty impressive number in a normal year," he said of McCain's total. "But this is not a normal year."
McCain's $12.5 million exceeds the sum that any candidate raised in the first quarter of past preelection years. But in 2007, Republican and Democratic presidential aspirants are raising unprecedented sums as they prepare for more than two dozen caucuses and primaries in January and early February.
Schnur attributed McCain's showing to concerns that some donors may have about his support for continued U.S. involvement in Iraq. Others say McCain has angered Republicans by his stands on various issues, not the least of which was his advocacy of campaign finance regulation that sought to require some political organizations to file more detailed public disclosures.
Still, other experts note that the campaign is in its early stages. Some past candidates who have lagged in early fundraising have righted themselves and won their party's nomination, while some aggressive fundraisers have posted impressive money numbers only to flail as actual voting takes place.
"Every candidate wants to be in first place, but it is no guarantee of success," said Michael Toner, former Federal Election Commission chairman. Toner, a Washington attorney, cited former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) in 1996 and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in 2004 as candidates who raised large sums but stumbled at the polls.
Candidates are not required to file full campaign disclosure reports covering the first quarter until April 15. But to show their fundraising prowess, some candidates have issued statements summarizing their receipts.
The Republicans' announcements came a day after similar disclosures by two top Democratic contenders -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who reported raising $26 million in the first quarter, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, with $14 million.
Combined, Clinton, Edwards and perceived second-tier Democratic candidates raised more than $50 million.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has not released his fundraising numbers. If, as expected, Obama raised roughly $20 million, then Democrats would have amassed $70 million in the first three months of the year, compared with roughly $50 million for the Republicans.
Such numbers underscore the Democrats' resurgence and hunger to win back the White House, after taking control of Congress in the 2006 election.
"This is part two of the 2006 elections," said Julian E. Zelizer, a political historian and campaign analyst at Boston University. Democrats, he said, are proving they "can raise money in a way that a few years ago didn't seem possible. It's a gauge of how the political momentum has shifted."
Campaign finance experts think candidates could need as much as $100 million to wage campaigns early next year.
All three Republicans are raising sufficient sums to mount competitive races in the early states. But any perceived weakness could deter some donors from giving, while strong fundraising efforts could sharply increase contributions.
"In politics, the early money has always been the most important," Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor. "It's a little like running up a score in a basketball game in the first quarter in hopes of establishing invincibility. The idea of it is to awe your competitors."
Romney, 60, entered politics after a career in venture capital. He served one term as governor, leaving office in January, and is a former chairman of the Republican Governors Assn. All three positions have helped him build a fundraising base.
Romney, thought to be worth hundreds of millions, used $6 million of his own money to fund his Massachusetts campaign for governor in 2002. By lending his presidential campaign $2.35 million, he indicated he might dip further into his personal fortune.