The Republican presidential fundraising reports are still coming in, but a clear winner has already emerged: President Barack Obama.
Whoever claims the GOP nomination is going to find it close to impossible to keep pace with the president's fundraising juggernaut.
That was the lesson of the first real quarter of the money chase, when it was revealed Wednesday that Republican front-runner Mitt Romney — the GOP's pale version of a cash-collecting machine — raised just over $18 million. (See: Mitt Romney's warning signs)
Romney's haul was less than what he took in as a first-time candidate out of the gates four years ago. Behind the former Massachusetts governor, the numbers tailed off dramatically. Neither Tim Pawlenty nor Jon Huntsman even hit $5 million. Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee is mired in $18.5 million of debt. (See: Tim Pawlenty reportedly raised $4.2 million in second quarter)
As for Obama, his reelection campaign and a joint fund set up with the Democratic National Committee have ostensibly set a $60 million goal for the quarter — a sum Democratic sources say they're sure to exceed when forms are filed with the Federal Election Commission on July 15. (See: Obama fundraising quarter to be big, Dem fundraisers predict)
Obama officials have already disclosed that 493,697 individual donors gave to the campaign this quarter. That's almost twice the number of donors they accumulated through the first two quarters of 2007, by which point they had raised $55.7 million for their Democratic primary battle. And it's nearly five times the 105,000 donors Bush-Cheney's reelection began with in 2003.
Republicans have long anticipated being outgunned by Obama on the fundraising front, but the breadth of the disparity is now coming into plainer sight — and it has some party veterans worried about what they see as a lack of urgency over the cash gap.
"There's not any doubt that Obama is going to raise more money than anybody has ever raised running for president," said Henry Barbour, RNC committeeman for Mississippi and nephew of Gov. Haley Barbour. "Is that sobering? Sure it is. It's a wake-up call."
Barbour, who is not yet supporting any candidate, predicted that Republican fundraising would pick up once the party settles on a nominee and the stakes become more clear.
"But it takes a lot of preparation to get ready to beat an incumbent president, and we've got to pick up the pace," he said.
"From this early on, it appears that that'll be enough resources for the Democrats to play in almost every state, and it sounds like the Republican nominee, whomever that will be, will be restrained by the resources to compete in the most obvious purple states," added Al Cardenas, the head of the American Conservative Union and a former Florida GOP chairman. "So while the other side can wage a campaign in most states, I think the Republican nominee will most likely confine most of their resource allocation to 13 or 15 states. That's a very significant disadvantage."
A former RNC head acknowledged that the takeaway was that the party's nominee would not be in the same fundraising ballpark as Obama.
"We're going to have to spend smarter," said the former leader, predicting that the GOP's big donors would continue to sit on their checkbooks until there was a presumptive nominee.
Even as they brace for Obama's initial haul, Republicans are comforting themselves by noting that many of the party's fundraising bundlers are still on the sidelines, dissatisfied with their options and waiting to see who ultimately runs and who emerges as a contender.
"There's an army out there that's not on the field yet," said Barry Wynn, a former South Carolina GOP chairman and Bush Pioneer.
But Wynn illustrates why the GOP is going to have to play financial catch-up for much of next year with Obama.
He's part of what has become informally known as the "Keep Your Powder Dry Caucus," the network of Republicans close to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) who are staying out of the GOP primary until either a strong conservative gets in the contest or a member of the current field distinguishes himself or herself.
"It may boil down to, of the remaining candidates, who could use the help to bring them over the finish line," Wynn said.
But other uncommitted Republicans would rather not wait that long and would like to see the money crowd start engaging as soon as all the GOP candidates who are going to make the race get in.
"I think a lot of the traditional givers or fundraisers have not picked a side in the primary," said veteran Republican strategist Charlie Black. "I think by Labor Day, they'll say the field is set and some of them will come off the sidelines."
The likelihood of a canyon-size money gap with Obama was driven home most vividly by Romney's less-than-anticipated take. After claiming to raise over $10 million during an all-day call-a-thon in May, his campaign reported raising less than twice that for the entire quarter. If Romney — who has effectively been running for president for five years and has a network of donors in the financial community, the Mormon Church and the ranks of regular Republican givers who believe he's their strongest candidate — can't even raise $20 million, how will he ever match a sitting president?
Romney's financial showing is sure to far outpace the rest of the current GOP crop. But he didn't put up a number that would scare off the likes of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is still mulling over a run.
And every day that there is uncertainty about the composition of the Republican field is another day Romney can't consolidate the party's big givers.
Take John Catsimatidis, for instance.
The New York grocery magnate spent last summer flying prospective donors up to New Hampshire to meet with Romney at his house there, but he's nonetheless uncommitted — and said he doesn't know when he will be.
"I think the guy is a qualified guy and I think he's very smart, and I think he's definitely going to be a finalist, but I'm just waiting to see what the field looks like," Catsimatidis said. "I think there are a lot of people that are not writing big checks yet. Are they writing token checks of $2,500? Yes. But … I don't think too many people have committed."
Romney's fundraising "will only get harder from here" in the primary, predicted one veteran GOP fundraiser in New York.
That's because he can't go back to those core supporters who gave the maximum allowed and, so far, lacks the sort of low-dollar fundraising network Obama enjoys.
The good news for Romney, however, is that at some point, he can tap into his own ample wealth to help bolster his fundraising. He hasn't done that yet. It doesn't mean he can single-handedly keep up with Obama, but he at least has a reserve fund.
Equally important, a pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, has sprung up and already raised $12 million. It doesn't face the same restrictions on fundraising as Romney's campaign and can play a valuable role in both the primary and the general election.
Republicans also note that after the Citizens United v. FEC decision, fundraising by candidates and committees isn't as important — a critical development for the race against Obama.
"There are so many more players on the chessboard now than what Bush had," the former RNC chief said.
They were already planning to play a major role, but outside groups like American Crossroads are now going to have to step in for the GOP nominee.
That would have across-the-board implications. Crossroads, which is divided into two entities, has set a goal of raising $120 million for the presidential, House and Senate campaigns — a protracted Republican nomination fight could force them to do more on the White House race.
"Barack Obama's bully pulpit is worth hundreds of millions of dollars in free airtime," said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for both groups. "A central role of the Crossroads groups — Crossroads GPS in policy advocacy, and American Crossroads in campaigns and elections — is to counter the asymmetrical power of the chief executive's microphone with a center-right message."
Well-connected Republicans say other third-party entities could still emerge to boost the party's nominee.
Until then, GOP insiders are reassuring themselves by arguing that money won't ultimately be dispositive, the state of the economy will trump any fundraising advantage enjoyed by Obama and that the prospect of beating the president will matter more than their nominee.
One party veteran recalled just how many Bush donors who despised John McCain nevertheless rallied around the Arizona senator after he won the nomination in 2008.
"People I thought would never give to McCain showed up," the Republican noted.
"There's plenty of people out there who are really, really fired up to try to win the election and defeat Obama," Black said, adding: "We won't raise as much as the president, but we won't need as much."
Maggie Haberman contributed to this report.