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Democratic contenders raise millions for White House bids

Edwards, Kerry lead the pack

By John Mercurio
CNN Washington Bureau

Sen. John Kerry
Sen. John Kerry

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Interactive: The Democratic field 

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry narrowly trailed North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in fund raising for the first three months of 2003, but Kerry likely leads the Democratic presidential field in cash-on-hand, banking more than $8 million on March 31, according to fund-raising estimates provided by campaign aides this week.

"I'm deeply grateful for and genuinely moved by the depth of support that so many Democrats across the country have shown for me and my campaign for president," Kerry said in a brief statement released Wednesday. Kerry raised or shifted an additional $2.9 million into his presidential campaign account last year, meaning his total haul for the 2004 race is roughly $10 million.

Edwards' campaign reported raising about $7.4 million in the first three months of this year. During that same period, Kerry raised about $7 million.

Two other Democrats, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, released fund-raising estimates Wednesday, each showing that they raised far less than Kerry or Edwards during the quarter.

To be sure, the three-month period is a long way from January 2004, when Democratic voters will cast their first ballots in the presidential nominating process. But early fund-raising reports, due to be filed by April 15 with the Federal Election Commission, are being closely watched to assess the candidate's strength, organizational prowess and viability.

Lieberman, the only Democratic candidate who previously has run on a national ticket, raised slightly more than $3 million during the quarter. Dean, who trails in national polls but has carved out a potentially strong niche among antiwar Democrats, raised an estimated $2.6 million during the quarter and had about $2 million on hand March 31, aides said.

Dean aides said their fund raising confirms their ability to compete in early-primary states. "Our internal goal had been $1.5 million, so this is very credible," said Dean spokeswoman Sue Allen.

Sen. John Edwards
Sen. John Edwards

Moving quickly to counter anticipated charges of weak fund raising, Lieberman aides emphasized that the senator -- bound by a pledge not to run for president if his 2000 running mate, former Vice President Al Gore, joined the race -- entered the race later than most other major candidates and consequently has had less time to organize a formal fund-raising machine.

Lieberman did not enter the race until January 13, four weeks after Gore officially declined to run again. Lieberman did not formally hire his fund-raising director, Shari Yost, until late February, aides noted.

"Despite a late start, once our fund-raising operation was firmly in place, we hit our stride," said Lieberman campaign manager Craig Smith, noting that the campaign raised about 70 percent of their total haul in one month alone.

Lieberman raised $300,000 in January, another $600,000 and, once Yost was hired, raked in $2.1 million in March.

Spokesman Jano Cabrera also said Lieberman has raised more money in the first week of April than they did during the entire month of January.

Waiting on Gephardt

Democrats now await word from former House minority leader Richard Gephardt, another major candidate, who aides said will release his fund-raising estimates soon.

Gephardt is being closely watched in part because he has personally spotlighted weak fund raising as a fatal flaw in his 1988 presidential campaign and promised to raise money more aggressively in this race. Gephardt also is presumably drawing from a national network of donors he has built while stumping for House Democratic candidates across the country.

Gephardt campaign spokesman Erik Smith declined to give an official estimate Wednesday, but he predicted that Gephardt's fund raising would not surpass that of Kerry or Edwards. "But we will be competitive. We're right on track, right where we want to be," Smith said.

Other Democratic candidates include Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and the Rev. Al Sharpton. None of them had released fund-raising estimates as of Wednesday afternoon.

Barring a surprisingly strong showing from Gephardt or other candidates, however, Kerry and Edwards will likely dominate the campaign this spring, buoyed by an abundance of resources and all-important "buzz" generated by their strong financial reports.

Edwards also has $1.4 million in his Senate re-election fund, which he could roll over into his presidential campaign. But aides say there are no plans to do so.

Overall, the reports also reveal a dose of good news for Democrats in their quest to oust President Bush, himself a proven fund raiser. "There's a lot of money out there for Democrats right now, there's clearly a great deal of enthusiasm out there to beat this president," Smith said.

At this point in the 2000 cycle, Gore, then a sitting vice president, and former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey had raised a total of $13.2 million in the Democratic presidential primary. (Gore had raised $8.9 million; Bradley had raised $4.3 million).

"This year, you have two candidates who have raised $14 million between the two of them. There are seven other candidates in the race, and this is a much tougher economy," said Smith, the Gephardt spokesman.

At this point in 1999, Gore held $6.8 million cash-on-hand; Bradley had banked $2.9 million, reports show.

Senior Political Researcher Robert Yoon contributed to this report.

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