What would motivate 45 health enthusiasts to dish out $2,300 apiece for 30 minutes on a stationary bicycle at a trendy health club? Two words: Bill Clinton. The former president showed up late last month at Soul Cycle, a new fitness center in New York City's upper west side, to raise cash for his wife's financially fit presidential campaign.
Strolling through rows of bicycles in a suit and tie, Clinton shook hands and shared personal anecdotes about Hillary Clinton, while raking in an easy hundred grand. The small crowd, mostly women, usually pays $25 for a spin class, but said Clinton's appearance was worth the extra dough. "People love him," one woman told ABC News. "People love him more than Hillary."
If Clinton's health club fundraising stop was unorthodox, so was the beginning of the 2008 presidential race. Earlier this month, the burgeoning slate of presidential candidates reported their much-anticipated first-quarter fundraising totals. The results were staggering: A dozen candidates collectively raised more than $125 million in three months. Even more staggering: Just three candidates raised more than half of that total.
With spin class funds in hand, Democrat Hillary Clinton topped the field, raking in $26 million. (The New York senator also transferred an additional $10 million from her Senate reelection campaign.)
Former Vice President Al Gore held the previous record for first-quarter fundraising with $8.9 million, now officially chump change in presidential politics.
Clinton wasn't alone in trouncing Gore's record. Sen. Barack Obama, currently seen as Clinton's closest rival for the Democratic nomination, raked in $25 million. Democrat John Edwards posted $14 million.
Mitt Romney led Republicans in fundraising: The former governor of Massachusetts, who had registered only single digits in recent presidential polls, took in $20.7 million in first-quarter fundraising. (Romney loaned an additional $2.35 million in personal funds to his campaign.)
Republican poll leader Rudy Giuliani, who had a later fundraising start, brought in $15 million, and campaign aides said the former New York City mayor raised nearly $10 million of that total in the month of March alone. Republican Sen. John McCain delivered the biggest fundraising flop: Once considered the frontrunner for his party's nomination, McCain raised $12.5 million, a number his own campaign conceded as disappointing.
But McCain and other candidates with lower-than-expected numbers have time to gain ground. The primary season is still nine months off, and the presidential election more than a year and a half away. But several states have already scheduled high-profile events where candidates hope to stand out. On April 26 in South Carolina, MSNBC will broadcast the first televised debate for Democratic candidates. A Republican debate will follow three weeks later.
One reason for the early fundraising pushes is that both major party races are more wide open than usual: For the first time since 1952 neither the Democrats nor the GOP have a sitting president or vice-president on the ticket. Also, candidates are competing for a limited pool of funds. Federal election law allows individuals to donate a maximum of $2,300 to a candidate's primary race, and another $2,300 for the general election. Candidates need to tap big donors now, before they are all tapped out.
That's why Hillary Clinton headlined at least 15 fundraising events in the last two weeks of March, including a star-studded bash in Los Angeles and a swank party at rapper Timbaland's Miami home. Obama has dominated Chicago's big-money scene, and Romney has tapped into a vast network of wealthy business contacts and fellow Mormons. (Nearly 400 Romney supporters helped launch the candidate's campaign in January with a "National Call Day" that brought in $6.5 million.)
Lower-tier candidates have settled for far less illustrious events. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who raised $1.5 million in the first quarter, recently courted small groups of Republicans at Iowa restaurants, including the Wig and Pen tavern in Iowa City.
Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, who raised just $500,000, also drew small crowds at events in Iowa, including a stop at the Pottawattamie County veterans hall, where no television crews showed up. The underdog candidate told the small group that money isn't the only thing that should drive the election: "If money and celebrity are the criteria to elect a president, then we can elect Paris Hilton."
John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, says big bucks now don't necessarily forecast big successes: While Romney and Edwards may be able to find "a rich vein of campaign money now," they still have to win over the broader public. Sensing opportunity, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel are considering GOP runs: Gingrich is eyeing the evangelical vote, and Hagel could reach anti-war Republicans.
Other candidates are still entering the race and hoping to carve out niches. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) formally announced his candidacy on April 2, saying he joined the race because no other Republicans were going to make illegal immigration "the primary issue of their campaign." Tancredo, who opposes creating a guest-worker program, told an Iowa conservative talk show host: "The melting pot is cracked."
One sign of turbulence: Republican Fred Thompson, a former senator and Law and Order actor, immediately scored double digits in recent national polls after saying he was "giving some thought" to running for president. Thompson bested Romney in those polls by 3.5 percentage points. In a contest that's still fluid, Sides says, many candidates have a chance: "No one was talking about Bill Clinton this time in 1992."