Frontrunners Beware

The political vacuum cleaners are in high gear — pulling in the campaign cash fast and furious. Hillary has amassed $36 million in the first quarter, which includes $10 million left over from her Senate run. Barack Obama will announce soon; his numbers are presumed to be impressive as well. Edwards has nearly doubled the $7.4 million he raised in the first quarter of 2003. Bill Richardson, one of my favorite long-shots, came in with a solid $6 million, with $5 million left in the bank.

Here is my point: A lot of these candidates will raise the funds needed to be competitive through next January. Of course, the super-primary day of Feb. 5, when over half the Democratic delegates may be chosen, poses another set of problems for a cash-strapped campaign.

But my advice right now is beware of frontrunner-itis. The ones with the most money may not be the ones who end up as the nominees. Remember Howard Dean with his $45 million-plus? He didn’t make it out of Iowa. The candidates who are leading in the polls now may fail to keep up the momentum this year or early next.

Once candidates reach a threshold to be competitive, the money chase may be less and less important. What will count is the ability to win early primaries and caucuses and prevent a campaign meltdown this year. I suspect we may see some who are out front now fade fast. In addition, the field is far from set. The two Thompsons (Fred and Tommy) look like candidates for the Republicans and Al Gore has the luxury of waiting until fall.

The Internet allows those shooting stars (surprise winners in Iowa, for example) to raise huge amounts of money incredibly fast. If I were one of the frontrunners in this campaign I would set my sights on those early states — I’d be in every town, every diner, every senior-citizens center across Iowa between now and January. The millions are real nice, but I’ll take the eyeball-to-eyeball contact of a precinct caucus delegate in Cedar Rapids any day. If you want to avoid frontrunner-itis, that is the way to do it.