Money to follow

On Saturday we begin counting the votes in what former President Bill Clinton has described as “the first primary.” It will be several weeks before the official results are known, but already the speculation is that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) will lead the field in money raised in this first reporting period. The Clinton camp is trying to downplay expectations; the Obama and Edwards camps are trying to raise the bar for her. It may well be that, once again, the strategists are trying to win the last war instead of this one. It is unlikely that Hillary will get a big boost or that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) or former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) will take a big hit from the fundraising reports. Other than pundits and big donors, few people will pay attention to this traditional presidential campaign milestone. The action has shifted to the grass roots, the Web and virtual activists who will drive voters to caucuses and polling booths in the first weeks of 2008.

While the campaigns, especially Clinton’s, have trumpeted their fundraising successes and tried desperately to play the who-got-the-most-money-from-Hollywood game, those stories have been only lightly reported and went largely ignored. There has been virtually no movement in the candidates’ relative positions throughout two months of such posturing.

Thirty-five percent of Democrats support Clinton, 22 percent favor Obama, and non-candidate and former Vice President Al Gore is still running third at 17 percent. Only Edwards has seen a five-point up-tick in the last three weeks to 14 percent (right on the margin of error), arguably as a result of the courage shown by him and his wife Elizabeth in the face of her recurring cancer. So a Clinton-Obama-Edwards finish in the fundraising primary is unlikely to have any impact on support for their campaigns. If Hillary were to fall short of expectations, it might hurt her fundraising — but that is extremely unlikely given the heavy hitters on her team.

On the Republican side, it will surprise no one if Rudy Giuliani files the biggest numbers with a healthy lead over former front-runner Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who saw his support drop when the former New York City mayor jumped into the race. But there are interesting surprises on the Republican side, at least according to the latest USA Today/Gallup poll. First, the numbers confirm that the race has tightened over the past few weeks as the Giuliani bloom fades a bit. The numbers suggest that Republican voters are not overly enamored with their choices. They see their best-known candidates as not real conservatives and their real conservatives as unknown and unexciting messengers.

Now along comes someone who could upset the apple cart. Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) has casually but calculatingly announced that he might consider running for president. Now widely known as a star in the TV series “Law and Order,” Thompson has both high visibility and conservative credentials. The Gallup Poll numbers have him surging to third place with 12 percent of the vote based on a simple teasing announcement. He now leads ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), Romney — in fact the entire pack of announced or likely-to-announce Republicans. (Ironically, I’ve already put Fred Thompson in the White House. He played the president in a film I produced and directed several years ago and clearly relished his scenes in the Oval Office.)

Thompson’s meteoric rise in the polls adds to speculation that 2008 will be an unusual and groundbreaking year. Should he decide to actually make the race, we’ll have two candidates who have skipped the traditionally long and carefully orchestrated preparation for a presidential campaign and jumped to the head of the queue based, in large part, on their celebrity. One could arguably add Giuliani to that list as well.

The clear message is that Americans are looking for change and are receptive to it coming from any number of directions. Whether it is from a charismatic newcomer to the national scene, a mayor whose brief moment of glory turned him into an icon of toughness or a former senator better known for sharing a stiff drink with his prosecutors at the end of his show each week than for anything he did in the Senate — America is willing to listen. That greatly diminishes the power of the “first primary.” The money will be there, online if nowhere else, for whoever can give voters the vision they feel is so missing now.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com