WASHINGTON — Barack Obama brings many distinctive traits to the 2008 presidential campaign, but one is especially rare for a Democratic candidate: He has an unusual ability to raise lots of money, which he will be able to spend earlier in the election season than his predecessors.
Dependent on federal matching funds, candidates in the past usually waited until Labor Day, when federal money became available, to begin most of their television advertising. Four years ago, Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts faced a monumental problem when his presidential campaign accounts dried up as he waited for federal funding. It hampered his response to attack ads that eventually helped President George W. Bush get re-elected.
But Obama is such a strong fundraiser that he is expected to skip the system of federal election funding -- freeing him from the timing rules and spending caps that come with it. That will give the Illinois senator the ability to air television spots and organize field staff long before the traditional Labor Day start of general-election campaigning. Obama, for example, can use the money to introduce himself to Latino voters, a group that does not know him well even after the 16-month primary season.
"Money is not dispositive," said Jim Jordan, who advised Kerry in his 2004 presidential campaign. "But I would rather outspend my opponent 4 to 1 than be outspent 4 to 1."
With Obama expected to face an onslaught from Republicans and their allies -- who may go after his lack of experience and his controversial former church affiliation -- having the money available now means at the very least that Democrats would be better positioned this year to respond to the kind of Swift boat attacks that damaged Kerry during his cash-starved weeks.
Obama has raised three times more than McCain -- $265 million to McCain's $90 million. He has tapped far more donors than any other candidate in 2008. Although he has not yet reached the estimated 2 million donors who gave to Bush through November four years ago, Obama has received money from 1.5 million individuals, whose average gift is less than $100.
McCain backers are unconcerned, pointing to the fact that the Arizona Republican won his party's nomination even though he was outspent by his rivals. "At the end of the day, we know that much more important than the money numbers is the candidate," said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers.
What is more, the Republican National Committee already has enough cash on hand to redress the financing imbalance between the candidates and is planning a major fundraising effort to get more. Recent campaign finance reports showed that the RNC and McCain combined had more cash on hand than Obama and the Democratic National Committee. Parties can raise money at $28,500 per donor -- as opposed to the $2,300 cap on individual donations to candidates -- and use it to pay for ads, get-out-the-vote efforts and other campaign-related activities to help their candidates.
Already, McCain is airing ads in battleground states, starting his general-election offensive before Democrats even picked their nominee.
But Obama's triumph over Clinton served McCain notice of his prowess at raising money from small donors and over the Internet. His success at raising small-dollar donations is significant because he can return to small donors and ask for more money.
A measure of his power on the Internet: Since shortly before midnight Tuesday, at least 50 people have created Web pages seeking money for Obama on the Democratic fundraising site ActBlue. No Republican site comes close to matching ActBlue, which has raised $48 million since its creation in 2004, much of it in small donations.
Obama and his backers are also reaching out to Clinton's high-end donors -- albeit gingerly, knowing that many are pained over her apparent loss.
"The discussions have been ongoing," said Howard W. Gutman, a Washington attorney on Obama's national finance team. "I'm sure there are more and more Clinton people who are willing to talk longer. . . . It is a growing movement. People take a while to come around."
A key Clinton backer predicted that eventually her allies will let bygones be bygones.
"Today, many of our members are discouraged, angry and upset," said Ellen R. Malcolm, founder of EMILY's List, which raises millions each election for female Democratic candidates supporting abortion rights and which strongly backed Clinton.
"We'll go through the process of dealing with that emotional experience," she added. "Way before November, we will be united to do our work to help elect a Democratic ticket."
Whatever cash Obama ends up with, it may help him force McCain to compete and spend money in states that otherwise might have been considered safe GOP territory.
McCain also is trying to lure Clinton's donors.
Los Angeles entrepreneur Sim Farar, a Clinton national finance committee chairman, said that the Arizona Republican left him a voice-mail Friday asking for a meeting. He also has received calls from two of Obama's top fundraisers, one of them former California Controller Steve Westly.
Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this report.