Financial Reports Shed Little Light On GOP Race

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So far in the Republican presidential contest, the poll numbers have been continually changing, with candidates moving up and then down again. The primary dates are also in flux, with at least four states moving theirs up to January to try to influence the outcome. But there's another set of numbers to watch: the candidates' fundraising totals.

Quarterly reports were filed with the Federal Election Commission over the weekend, and President Obama's campaign reported a hefty sum: $61 million cash on hand as of Sept. 30. Among the GOP candidates, only one appears to be solid in both his finances and his poll standing: Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose campaign reported $15 million cash on hand.

At the back of the pack is former House speaker Newt Gingrich. But he said on CNN's State of the Union on Sunday that "back in the pack" isn't a permanent condition.

"Nobody's done in this business. At this stage last time, McCain was in third place," Gingrich said.

But Gingrich raised less than $1 million in the third quarter, while Romney raised $14 million. Not to be outdone, Texas Gov. Rick Perry got $17 million.

Whether Perry's financial strength is sustainable is in question, as he has fallen in the polls following poor performances in several debates. An NPR analysis found that his fundraising dropped 60 percent the week after the first of those debates in early September.

That same week, Romney's fundraising went up 50 percent.

The successor to Perry at the top of the polls is businessman Herman Cain. But he finished the quarter with just $1.3 million in the bank. Perry was even with Romney at about $15 million cash on hand.

"After those two, there's just a very big gap," says Michael Malbin, director of the Campaign Finance Institute. He says that aside from Romney and Perry, it is hard to see anyone right now with the financial strength to navigate the tough primary calendar.

"Cain is riding high in the polls but has got not just a big financial gap, but a big organizational gap," he says. "Ron Paul is doing very well among small donors, but whether he can translate that into effective votes outside of Iowa and a couple other places we just don't know yet."

The Super PAC Factor

Another unknown is the impact of super PACs, a new political animal made possible in part by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. Super PACs are allowed to raise unlimited amounts from rich people, corporations and unions.

There are super PACs dedicated to all of the major candidates. They're supposed to be independent, but each one is run by advisers and former staffers of the candidate.

Despite that wide-open opportunity to raise money, some observers say the super PACs might not be such powerful game-changers.

"Money that's not spent by the campaign is never going to be spent nearly as efficiently as the campaign would want it to be," says Robert Boatright, a political scientist at Clark University in Massachusetts.

Boatright says a strong candidate probably won't be drowned out by ads from a rival's super PAC.

"Say if Perry wanted to do this to Romney or vice versa, they both have enough money that they'd be able to figure out what was happening and counter it," he says.

But Michael Malbin says the troubling aspect is the lack of disclosure. Just two of the super PACs — one supporting Romney and one President Obama — have been around long enough to make any significant disclosure of their donors. Those disclosures were in July.

The next reports are due in late January, the same time as the next filings by the candidates' campaign committees.

Malbin notes that the Republican primary contest could be settled by then.

"So this can be a campaign that begins and ends in the dark," Malbin says.

That might be good news for the candidates and some of their financial backers.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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