By Sasha Johnson
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The timing of Tom Vilsack's decision to abandon his 2008 Democratic bid for the White House on Friday may have surprised supporters, but the outcome itself did not come as a shock to those closely following the intense pace and cost of the contest.
"This process has become to a great extent about money. A lot of money," Vilsack told reporters in Des Moines, Iowa.
"It's clear to me that we would not be able to continue to raise money in the amounts necessary to sustain, not just a campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire, but a campaign across the country.(Watch Vilsack explain why he withdrew from the race)
"So, it's money, and only money, that is the reason we are leaving today," the former Iowa governor said. (Full story)
Vilsack exited the race having only officially announced his candidacy 15 weeks ago.
"I was surprised," said Vilsack supporter and Iowa Democratic activist Gordon Fischer. But he said raising money for a national campaign has become "a high-stakes poker game where just to sit at the table you need more than $20-$25 million. ... Iowa is a small rural state and there is a limit to what you can raise."
Money separating Clinton, Obama from pack
In January, Vilsack's campaign touted the fact they had pulled in more than $1.1 million in contributions during last November and December, however Vilsack ended 2006 with just under $396,000 in his campaign coffers.
Compare that to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. The Democratic presidential candidate was able to pull in $1.3 million this week in just one star-studded Hollywood fundraiser.
Or Sen. Hillary Clinton's star fundraising status. She did a fundraising swing through Los Angeles, California, and appeared at a sold-out $250 a head fundraising lunch Friday in San Francisco.
The amount of money Clinton and Obama are expected to raise in advance of the primary season leaves little room for lesser known candidates like Vilsack to gain traction and credibility in the money race.
"I think it's a truism at this point that you can have lots of great qualities, you can have name recognition, you can have a good organization, you can have great ideas, if you don't have the money you don't have the campaign," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks money in politics.
"Vilsack epitomizes what we'll be seeing a lot more of in this cycle and that is that here was a good candidate, good ideas, [but] didn't have the money. He saw the writing on the wall and it said 'You're not going to be president,' " Krumholz said.
Public financing system crumbling
Complicating the picture for candidates not named Obama and Clinton is the decision by the two front-runners to forgo public financing for the primary season -- meaning they can raise and spend as much money as they want.
Former Sen. John Edwards also has said he will not accept public financing. A candidate forced to rely on the public financing system would receive up to $21 million in matching funds for the primary season, but would be subject to state spending limits and hamstrung when it came time to go up against competitors' with bottomless coffers.
"This time, most of the top tier candidates, the rock star candidates, are saying, 'We can't afford to take the public funds, we can't afford to be impeded by the spending limits that come with the taxpayer funding,' " Krumholz said.
It's estimated that the vast field of presidential candidates will each need about $50 million to carry them through 2007 in the run-up to the primary contests. Tack on another $100 million for the primary season and "if you are the nominee you'll need about half-a-billion dollars to make it," Krumholz said.
When Jimmy Carter ran for president and won in 1976 he spent $55 million, but by the time George W. Bush ran and won again in 2004 the cost of his re-election campaign closed in on $419 million. Even adjusted for inflation, the 2004 road to the White House was twice what the road cost in 1976.
The 2008 contest "will shatter all previous records ... the cost for the two nominees will be double what it was last time if predictions hold true," according to Krumholz.
CNN's Candy Crowley contributed to this report.
Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack tells reporters Friday in Des Moines that "it is money, and only money, that is the reason we are leaving today."
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