WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Just when Washington insiders were beginning to think of Sen. Hillary Clinton's nomination as inevitable, here comes Sen. Barack Obama to shake up that assumption with stupendous second-quarter fundraising totals: $32.5 million raised, of which $31 million can be spent in the Democratic primaries.
Sen. Hillary Clinton currently leads in national polls, but Sen. Barack Obama raised more money in the second quarter.
That's a bigger total take than Clinton's impressive $27 million for the quarter, and half again more than she raised for the primaries ($21 million).
So who's the front-runner now? We're in the middle of the "invisible primary," the year before the election when no actual votes are cast but candidates compete for money and attention. Watch Sen. Obama explain why people are backing his campaign »
Historically, the candidate who has raised the most money and leads the polls at the end of the invisible primary (i.e., December 31, 2007) ends up getting the nomination. Except when he doesn't. Howard Dean won the invisible primary in 2003, but was effectively finished a few weeks later after he came in third in Iowa.
At the half-year mark, Obama, D-Illinois, leads Clinton, D-New York, in primary fundraising, although both contenders have raised record amounts of money for Democrats this early in the campaign. Only President Bush has raised more than $30 million in any quarter during the year before the election ($35.1 million the second quarter of 2003).
Obama's take for the last six months ($55.7 million for the Democratic primaries) is larger than the total raised by Howard Dean in the entire year of 2003 ($53 million).
Money is one scorecard. Polls are another, and that's where Obama continues to lag. The latest national poll of Democrats has Clinton leading Obama, 43 to 25 percent, with John Edwards at 17 percent if Al Gore is not included as a candidate, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted June 22-24.
Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe wrote, "One of our opponents is also the quasi-incumbent in the race, who in our belief will and should lead just about every national poll from now until the Iowa caucuses. Expect nothing different and attach no significance to it.''
What about the early voting states? A mixed picture. Polls taken in June show Clinton with a big lead over Obama among New Hampshire and Nevada Democrats. Two polls of Iowa Democrats show a tight race among the top three contenders, while the latest poll of South Carolina Democrats puts Obama in the lead.
Obama's record-breaking fundraising numbers signify that the candidate is, indeed, a phenomenon. More impressive than the dollar amounts is the fact that the Obama campaign claims to have raised money from more than 250,000 individuals, most of it in small amounts.
In this case, smaller is better because the campaign can go back and continue to mine those contributors for more money. With that many small contributors, Obama can claim broad grassroots support.
What drives that kind of support? Passion. More than any other candidate, Obama appears to have captured the moment in this campaign with his message of inclusiveness and change.
One of Obama's first television ads, now running in Iowa, pays tribute to his spirit of bipartisanship. "Republican legislators respected Senator Obama,'' a Republican state senator from Illinois says in the ad.
Another ad seeks to embellish Obama's image as an outsider. In the ad, a Harvard law school professor describes Obama as "someone who could've written his ticket on Wall Street" but instead took "all of the talent and all of the learning and decide to devote it to the community and to making people's lives better.''
Does money translate into votes? Not necessarily. Ask Dean or Ross Perot, both of whom spearheaded grassroots movements in previous campaigns. But money does do two things. It enables Obama to run heavy television advertising in the crucial early states, introducing the candidate and his campaign message (and responding to criticism). It also gets the candidate a lot of attention and interest: Obama can be called the front-runner by at least one measure.
Other second-quarter fundraising figures show respectable though not record-breaking takes. John Edwards' $9 million is down from the $14 million he raised in the first quarter. Bill Richardson's $7 million is up a bit from the $6 million he raised in the first quarter. It puts Richardson's total close to Edwards' for the last quarter.
Republican candidates have been slower to report their second-quarter totals (final figures are not due until July 15). But two results seem likely: the total amount raised in the second quarter will break all records for fundraising this early in a campaign, and Democrats will once again out-raise Republicans, just as they did in the first quarter. This means there is an unprecedented amount of public interest in the 2008 campaign.
People seem to be throwing money at the candidates. And most of it is going to the Democrats. E-mail to a friend
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