For the first time in the presidential campaign, John McCain matched Barack Obama's monthly fundraising haul, as each presumptive nominee pulled in more than $21 million in May, campaign reports filed Friday show.
McCain has lagged dramatically behind Obama, who became the first presidential candidate to opt out of the 32-year-old public financing system, a move that releases him from spending limits that would have applied after the Democratic convention.
Since the campaign began, Obama has out-raised McCain $287.5 million to $115.3 million.
McCain's fortunes have been helped by the Republican National Committee, which ended last month with 13 times more in the bank than its Democratic counterpart. Altogether, McCain and his party had $85 million in the bank, compared with $47 million for Obama and the Democratic National Committee.
At the end of May, Hillary Rodham Clinton had total debt of $22.5 million. That debt included $12.175 million in money she lent herself. Altogether, Clinton spent $207 million. She raised $219 million, including the $10 million she had left over from her 2006 Senate race in New York.
McCain spokesman Brian Rogers downplayed the Arizona senator's relative success in May, saying: "We're not going to beat our chest about this."
Campaign experts were quick to offer cautions.
Political scientist Anthony Corrado, an expert in presidential campaign financing at Colby College in Maine, said he believed that May would be Obama's worst month of the campaign. Donations have probably flooded to the Illinois senator since he locked up the nomination when the Democratic primaries ended June 3, Corrado said.
"What we'll see in June is a major surge, and much greater success in fundraising from here on out," Corrado said.
Despite the current Republican advantage, Corrado expects that Obama will outspend his Republican foe and the GOP by as much as 2 to 1.
Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, who is not involved in the campaign, said that Obama appeared to have given his donors "a little rest" from appeals for money. He too expects a burst in Obama's fundraising. "This may actually, ironically, be an impetus for a new fundraising drive. I think we can anticipate that," Carrick said of the lower take in May.
Obama received $21.9 million in contributions -- a substantial drop from April, when he raised $30.7 million. It was an especially steep decline from February and March, when he raised $55.4 million and $41.3 million, respectively.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said the candidate placed "less of an emphasis on it in May as we were working to win the final contests, especially knowing that we would be asking a lot of our donors once we locked up the nomination."
McCain, by contrast, has shown steady increases month by month, raising $21.2 million in May, $3 million more than his previous high in April. McCain also raised $2.2 million to handle legal issues for the general election.
McCain ended the month with $31.5 million in his main campaign bank account, an increase of $10 million from the month before. Obama had $43 million in the bank, down from $46 million.
Based on reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, the Republican Party is poised to act as the equalizer in the fall campaign. The RNC has vastly out-raised Democrats this year. It amassed $24.4 million in May to the DNC's $4.8 million. The RNC had $53.5 million in the bank to the Democrats' $3.9 million.
For the last two months, McCain and the RNC have raised money in joint events, with the candidate taking the maximum $2,300 from individuals and the party accepting $28,500 donations.
Florida was particularly lucrative in May for McCain and the GOP, accounting for a combined $4.1 million. In New York, where former GOP front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani has helped McCain, the candidate and the RNC raised $3.03 million. California accounted for $2.5 million.
RNC Chairman Mike Duncan said in a statement that the fundraising showed that "Republicans want to make sure the candidate who can deliver the right change for America is elected this fall."
DNC Press Secretary Stacie Paxton said Democrats "are confident we will have the resources we need to win in November."
McCain is using his money to campaign and to air commercials before the September convention. Once he officially becomes the GOP's nominee, he will take $84 million in tax money to wage the fall campaign. He also will rely on the RNC, which is staffed by former aides and loyalists.
Obama, by contrast, is turning down the federal grant and instead will rely on his massive base of 1.5 million donors. Experts say Obama could raise $200 million or more.