Lesser GOP candidates face cash squeeze

Only Mitt Romney and Rick Perry seem to have the money to meet the challenges imposed by the accelerated primary schedule.

That could change if Herman Cain maintains his surge or if one of the other contenders turns a momentary bump in the polls into a real fundraising achievement. 

But the combination of the depressed economy, the holiday season and several states with expensive media markets upping the dates of their primary contests means only Romney — who’s raised $32 million so far this year — and Perry — who raised $17 million since he got into the race — have the funds available to go the distance.

The end of the third quarter, which was Sept. 30, also marked the close of the campaign period during which candidates can focus on fundraising without having to spend most of the money they’re building up.

Moving forward, the GOP contenders will have to increase their burn rate — shelling out money for television ads, facing increased travel costs as they move between the states with early voting contests and establishing pricey and complex infrastructure in those states.

“The nominee’s going to have to have enough money to run a full-blown campaign in the first five states. He or she better have that in the bank by Christmas, or they’re going to be in trouble,” said Scott Reed, a veteran GOP strategist who worked on Bob Dole’s presidential campaign.

Florida’s decision to hold its primary on Jan. 31 puts a new stumbling block in the way of candidates: Can they afford to buy television ads in a state that’s one of the most expensive places to campaign?

One week of television ads in the Sunshine State can cost as much as $1 million, as opposed to as little as $200,000 a week in Iowa and $300,000 to $400,000 in New Hampshire. 

In Arizona, which has moved its primary date up to Feb. 28, candidates might have to spend more to produce campaign ads and materials in Spanish, a scenario that could also play out in parts of Nevada and Florida.

Many expect Florida to be the contest that could result in a Republican nominee, which could make money an even more closely watched indicator.

“There will be a real threshold, because Florida is so much more expensive,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist who is backing Perry. “This is when you start getting into, ‘Do you spend money in the fourth quarter to survive, or do you hold off for your strategy of Iowa and New Hampshire?’ ”

The fourth quarter is historically a notoriously tough time to raise money, as Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Jewish holidays compress a three-month period to about two months. 

“It’s certainly much more of a short quarter; you have until the middle of November, and then everything shuts down,” said John Brabender, former Sen. Rick Santorum’s (R-Pa.) top strategist.

Mackowiak said the period is crucial to turn dollars into staffers. 

“It’s the last quarter where the money you raise can make a huge difference in terms of your early-state organization,” he said.

Campaign strategists from current and former campaigns all said that money is much easier to come by if a candidate is on the upswing. But if a candidate is struggling, it can be a vicious cycle.

“Success begets success, and the perception of having fundraising prowess is almost half the battle; the perception becomes reality,” said Kirsten Fedewa, who was the communications director for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential run. “I’ve heard Herman Cain speak about the power of the message. The message is important — tremendously — but money fuels the mechanics of the campaign, and that’s people on the ground and all of the other things necessary to make it happen.”

Fedewa acknowledged that part of Huckabee’s undoing was his lack of early money, and that while donations flowed in after his win in Iowa, it was hard to turn that into organization quickly. “Message momentum can get you well into the second half of the game, but without money it’s hard to cross the finish line,” she said.

All the major GOP candidates have a heavy schedule of fundraisers planned for the coming weeks, and will continue to add more as quickly as they can find donors to fill them.

“It needs to be an all-of-the-above approach,” said Perry spokesman Mark Miner. “Fundraising is always going to be an important component to the process — it gets you the resources to run a credible campaign.”

Two other factors are making fundraising in the final months of the year particularly difficult: Candidates have already picked the low-hanging fruit by maxing out their most enthusiastic supporters, and economic worries continue to restrain the amount of disposable income available to Americans.

“It’s clear that everyone’s watching what they’re spending,” said a Republican strategist with knowledge of national GOP fundraising efforts. “The economy has made it more difficult, and it will continue. You just have to be smarter with your money.”