Fundraising gluttony is in. Can a political stomach ache be far behind?
President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney are on an unprecedented fundraising binge that shows no sign of ending.
Motivated by the sheer terror of being outspent by one another, the two candidates are locked in an ever-escalating game of financial one-upmanship. And it comes at a cost all its own.
—Think of what other things they could be spending that time on if they weren't courting donors: say, governing, or preparing to govern. Or talking to a broad swath of voters rather than campaign partisans.
—Think of what else all that money — sure to exceed $1 billion — could be used for: Fighting poverty? Improving education? Putting a nick in the $15.8 trillion national debt?
—Think of what all those donors might want in return: Some may be ponying up for a better country, but others will be looking for some kind of more personal payback.
The latest batch of fundraising numbers, out Thursday, showed Romney and the Republicans raised $76 million in May compared with $60 million for Obama and the Democrats. A month earlier, it was Obama and the Democrat's $43.6 million compared with $40 million for Romney and the Republicans. Add the eye-popping sums being spent by super PACs siding with one side or the other and it's by far the most expensive presidential election in history.
Joe Trippi, who earned praise for tapping into the Internet to raise big dollars for Howard Dean in his unsuccessful race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, remembers what a big deal it was when Dean brought in $15 million in three months.
"They're doing $15 million in a day now," says Trippi. "It is sort of an arms race that is getting ridiculous."
Obama did raise nearly $15 million earlier this month from an A-list fundraiser at actor George Clooney's canyon home in Los Angeles. Seats at the table cost $40,000, but more than half that money came in from a raffle for small-dollar donors hoping to score an invitation.
Romney, for his part, picked up at least $15 million on a two-day trip to Texas this week, collecting checks during stops in Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio and Houston.
Asked Thursday if he could beat Obama in the 2012 fundraising race, Romney said only: "Long way to go."
Both sides have been working intently to stockpile cash now to use in the fall, when the TV ad buys will be relentless and there won't be much time for fundraising. Each side is bracing for particularly tough attacks ads from independent super PACs that don't have to answer to voters.
Can this all-out dash for cash be good for America?
"There's a reason all these people are giving all this money," says Trippi. "They want things."
For some it's good government, he says, "but most of them want something else. Even if it's just for the candidate to listen to them, that's going to have an impact." And there are surely others looking to sway policy, snag an ambassador's post, or some other favor.
For all the hand-wringing over cozy relationships between candidates and contributors, not everyone thinks all this money flooding into politics is a problem.
"More money in the campaigns is going to lead to better campaigns and more engagement," says David Mason, a Republican appointee who served on the Federal Election Commission from 1998 to 2008. "Not everybody will like everything that's done, but the kinds of things that campaigns will do when they have plenty of money are the kinds of things the Obama campaign did four years ago, which is to go deeper in their engagement strategies and try to come up with new tools."
Former Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele says "all this angst about money in politics is really kind of wasted energy" because it will always be there, one way or the other. But Steele lamented the big money that super PACs on both sides will pour into ads that are "increasingly full of crap."
"They're distortions, they're lies, fear-mongering, and that's not having an intelligent conversation about important issues," he said.
And, Steele said, the time that candidates themselves must devote to fundraising comes at the expense of time with voters.
"That's the Catch-22," he said. "You need to be in front of the voters, but having the money in the bank helps you do that."
Both Obama and Romney are using this period between the primaries and the conventions to double down in courting donors.
Romney often holds just a few public campaign events per week while attending up to a dozen fundraisers. Even when he returns to full-time campaigning in the coming weeks, his advisers plan at least one fundraiser a day.
As of Thursday, Obama had attended 153 fundraisers since filing for re-election in April 2011, according to statistics kept by CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller. During a comparable period eight years ago, President George W. Bush had done 79 fundraisers.
Just this week, Obama took a two-day, two-city fundraising swing through California that brought in $5 million from five events, among them a dinner crowd that included comedian Ellen DeGeneres and the singer Cher.
The presidential hob-knobbing with celebrities at fundraisers has opened Obama to criticism from the right. "He's becoming Barack Kardashian," commentator Rush Limbaugh poked this week.
White House press secretary Jay Carney shot back with two words: "Donald Trump." He's giving fundraising help to Romney.
Between Obama's cross-country travel and fundraising events on Wednesday, the president was in motion for more than 15 hours, most of that time out of the public eye. He did work in some official business along the way, though. During the flight to California, Obama called German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti to discuss Europe's financial crisis.
To see what's driving the money race, look no further than Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker this week survived a recall vote after heavily outspending his critics. Obama's team responded with an email to supporters saying that money had "swung the election" and was exactly what Obama could be up against this fall.
But Trippi cautions that money doesn't always win the day, pointing to Democrat Jerry Brown's victory over Republican Meg Whitman in the California governor's race in 2010 despite being outspent by a huge margin.
"It's a fallacy to think that the one with the most money wins," he said. "But neither side is willing to take the chance."
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