Obama: The Half-Billion-Dollar Man

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Jae C. Hong / AP

Barack Obama listens to a question from the audience during a town hall–style meeting in Dayton, Ohio on July 11

Is Barack Obama worth $500 million? The Democratic Party is betting he'll help bring in about that much — if not more.

As the public face of the party, Obama is responsible for both his own campaign's fund-raising and for that of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) — a combined estimated goal of $450 million. He has also pledged to help Hillary Clinton with her reported $20-million debt to various vendors, and congressional Democrats are hoping that Obama's financial coattails will be tens of millions of dollars long for their own electoral purposes.

These are staggering sums for someone who was still paying off his student loans three years ago. But the freshman Illinois Senator shattered so many records in the primaries — raising nearly $300 million in 16 months — that he has become a victim of his own success in the general-election expectations game. The public has become numb to his staggering sums, as have his donors, a danger for a campaign seeking to make folks feel involved. After all, how much of a difference can an extra $25 make in a pool of half a billion?

Donors, especially on the Democratic side, may be getting a little burned out. More than $1.04 billion was raised during the primaries for the 24 presidential aspirants from both parties. Of that, $651.2 million went to Democratic candidates and $390.4 million went to Republicans. Sensing donor fatigue, Obama's e-mail appeals have slowed to about one a week, versus several a week at the height of the primaries. But Obama needs to keep up the pace: essentially, he must repeat his primary feat, add more than 50% and do it in a quarter of the time. "It's a huge task that we've got," said one top Obama donor. "I wouldn't define it as concern, but there's a realization of the enormity of what we are trying to accomplish, and everybody is intensely focused on the task at hand."

Which is why bringing the party together — and bringing Clinton's big donors into the fold — is important. Even if her donors don't give the maximum of $2,300 to Obama, there's a lot they can help with elsewhere. "It is a lot to put on one person," said a Democratic strategist familiar with Clinton's fund-raising machine. "But at the same time, the Hillary people, the institutional, longtime party donors — they will be there, they will start to give." Many have not yet given to the DNC, or the Democratic Senatorial and Congressional Campaign Committees, which raise money to support Democratic candidates and are both more than $40 million short of their 2006 totals. Each donor can give up to $28,000 to the DNC and $28,500 to each committee as long as they don't exceed more than $65,500 in a cycle giving to such committees.

The GOP, meanwhile, hasn't focused much on congressional races. Republicans have far more vulnerable seats — upwards of 10 in the Senate and 30 in the House — but their committees have raised one-third less money than their Democratic counterparts. So while Democratic donors have lots of exciting options vying for their wallets, GOP fund raisers seem less interested in Congress and more concerned with keeping the White House. "Our weakness is the House and Senate committees. But on the presidential side, we see a chance at holding the White House," said GOP strategist Brad Blakeman.

John McCain was not the top fund raiser when the GOP race was competitive, and expectations of his general-election cash skills are low. But then, since he's opted for public financing, his needs are low too. "McCain only has to fund-raise through the convention in August and then he's locked in from then till Election Day," Blakeman said. "Not only does Obama have to get his message out, he now has to fund-raise every day for the next four months." By accepting public funds, McCain must abide by an $85 million cap on his spending, which is where the Republican National Committee (RNC) comes in. The RNC, which can run some ads on behalf of McCain and unlimited ads in support of the party, has already doubled its Democratic counterpart's fund-raising this year, bringing in $167.7 million as of June 24, according to the Federal Election Commission. When added together the McCain campaign and RNC had $95 million cash on hand at the end of May, compared with just $40 million cash on hand for Obama and the DNC, McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, told reporters last week. All told, between the RNC, the $85 million from the government, and state and local GOP fund-raising, "we're looking at a unified budget of over $400 million, and I think that is a relative conservative number," Davis said.

Obama's fund-raising peaked in February, when he took in a record $55 million for the month. Since then his numbers have been in steady decline: $41 million in March, $31 million in April, $22 million in May. That said, $22 million in any other cycle would be record-breaking. McCain posted his best month ever in June: $22 million. And there is a natural cooling-off period after the primaries. With gas prices sky-high, some small donors may feel like Obama doesn't need their $25 as much as they do. "The thing we are a little concerned about is that some people don't realize the urgency," said Karen Finney, DNC communication director. "Senator McCain is a formidable candidate."

The Obama campaign is starting to underline that urgency. In a video to donors on Monday, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe warned that the McCain campaign has outspent Obama 3 to 1 in television ads since April. "So now we face a position where both McCain and the RNC together have $96 million in the bank, almost $100 million," Plouffe said. In some ways, the recent spate of news stories fretting over the state of Obama's fund-raising can only help. After all, the revelation that Clinton had been forced to loan herself $5 million before Super Tuesday spawned a one-day record-breaking online haul of $10 million for her campaign. Obama has never tested his network's fears: fear of a third Bush term, of continued GOP control of the White House, of losing. If hope can raise $300 million, can fright raise $200 million more?