"Follow the money." The famous advice Deep Throat gave to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal continues to guide political reporters in deciding which political candidates are viable. So when the latest fund-raising totals were released by various campaigns Thursday, and showed that former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley had out-raised Vice President Al Gore during the summer months, reporters fell all over each other in their eagerness to label him the front-runner.
In a stunning development, Bradley has raised a reported $18.4 million so far, according to campaign spokesman Eric Hauser, including $6.7 million in the last three months. Gore, by comparison, raised $6.4 during the summer and $24 million total. Reflecting the higher expenditures by the Gore campaign, Bradley also appears to have more money in the bank than the vice president, reporting $10 million on hand to the $9.5 million estimated by the Gore campaign.
Bradley downplayed the fund-raising totals at a campaign stop in Oakland, Calif., Thursday. In his ongoing effort to chip away at Gore's sizable lead here, Bradley focused more on his new health care plan than his campaign bank account. Saying that he still "feels like an underdog," Bradley said the figures released today did not make him the candidate to beat. "I don't think we have momentum. I think we have a little traction," Bradley said.
But undeniably, money has been a key reason why the media started paying attention to Bradley, and how he was able to get that traction. He surprised many members of the media three months ago with his fund-raising prowess, one of the first indications that the race for the Democratic nomination would turn competitive.
The strategy of choice among both Democratic candidates seems to be the lowering of expectations. Wednesday, Gore announced he was moving his campaign headquarters from Washington to Nashville, and challenged Bradley to a series of debates. But both Bradley and Gore may be right to call themselves underdogs. Their fund-raising totals both pale in comparison to those of Republican front-runner George W. Bush, who still holds sizable leads over both Gore and Bradley in hypothetical head-to-head match-ups. Bush raised more money this quarter -- $19 million -- than Bradley has during his entire campaign. The Texas governor is reporting roughly $37 million cash on hand. (By contrast, Bush rival Sen. John McCain has raised $7 million total; Elizabeth Dole has raised $5 million total.)
As he did at the end of the last fund-raising period, Bush chose to be in California to announce his whopping fund-raising totals, and the mo' money news dominated the day's stories. Like everything else with the Bush campaign, timing of the California trip was no accident. By flexing his muscle in Democratically controlled California, Bush is hoping to send a signal to Democrats that he plans to do battle here. And without California, piecing together a believable scenario for a Democratic presidential victory is virtually impossible.
Of course, elections are not decided on fund-raising totals. While locked in a statistical dead heat with the vice president in some New Hampshire polls, Bradley still trails Gore by double digits in both states. Asked when any portion of the candidate's $18.4 million would be translated into television spots or direct mail pieces, Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser said, "not today or tomorrow."
Bradley was expected to raise more than $400,000 tonight at a Silicon Valley event that closes out his three-day California swing.