KAI RYSSDAL: Democratic presidential wannabes will gather tomorrow night in South Carolina for their first debate of the election cycle. Their Republican counterparts will do the same next week in California.They're squeezing all the politicking in between fundraising calls.
With wide open races on both sides, the amount of money coming in is truly staggering: 18 candidates raised $130 million altogether during the first quarter. That's four times more than at the same point in the last presidential campaign. And our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale reports more of it's coming in smaller amounts.
JOHN DIMSDALE: Judy Crook is a part-time teacher in Rifle, Col. Last month, she gave a hundred dollars to the campaign of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. She likes his position on immigration and his international experience, and she hopes her contribution will help Richardson stay in the race.
JUDY CROOK: It's really early in the campaign, but I want it to count toward something. And he actually did get some attention for having raised a lot of money as . . . even though he was in the second tier of candidates. And I thought well, you know, so my little teeny, tiny contribution probably helped towards that.
And in New York city, freelance audio engineer Geoff Sanoff has given $50 to John Edwards. But he's planning on giving to Senator Barack Obama as well.
GEOFF SANOFF: What I'm looking for in a candidate is someone who's fresh. Someone who's able to express the thoughts and ideas in ways that I agree with, and that don't back down from having the discussion that I think we need to have as a country.
So far, Senator Hillary Clinton has the largest warchest for the coming campaign. But that's come at a price. More than half her donors have given the $2,300 contribution limit for the primaries.
Senator Barack Obama has raised nearly as much money from a much broader base. Only 13 percent of his donors have maxed out. For John Edwards, it's 19 percent.
Joe Trippi, who engineered Howard Dean's grassroots campaign in 2004, is now working for the Edwards campaign. He says history shows it's better to have more smaller donors than fewer bigger donors.
JOE TRIPPI: In the Obama campaign for instance, if he has 90,000 people who gave him a hundred dollars with a $2,300 limit, you can theoretically go back to any of those individuals 23 times. Whereas if someone gave you the maxed-out check of $2,300, which happened more in the Clinton campaign than any other campaign, you can't even go back to them.
Plus, more small donors helps a candidate stay independent from outside pressure, says Sheila Krumholz, who tracks campaign contributions at the Center for Responsive Politics.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: There are those among the donors that are maxing out that are expecting something in return. These are wealthy and politically astute, and often very active individuals who may well be looking for a place in the new administration. And perhaps are giving to multiple candidates because they want to make sure that whomever is victorious on Election Day, they've contributed to that candidate. And that candidate, in effect, owes them a favor.
Small giver Geoff Sanoff sees no contradiction in donating to John Edwards and Barack Obama.
SANOFF: I think they both have really important things to say. And I would like to be able to, in some small way, push the conversation that the Democratic party's having. As Hillary would say, let the conversation begin. I mean, I'd like it to begin by talking about things from a more populist point of view.
Sanoff says his online surfing and blog-reading sparked his political interest and made it easier to contribute.
American University presidential scholar James Thurber says the Internet has become a prime tool for fundraising.
JAMES THURBER: It makes it very easy to contribute money and to use your credit card. And therefore, you have instant money. It's not like somebody's writing a check and it takes a couple weeks to clear the check. It's instantaneous for these campaigns. It's the fuel of these campaigns these days.
Campaign officials say Internet fundraising is a lot cheaper than traditional soliciting. Just think of how much money is saved by not renting ballrooms and serving wine and rubber chicken.
In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.