Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina seemed virtually assured Wednesday of having had the best first quarter of fund raising among the crowded field of Democratic presidential hopefuls.
That became apparent as Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts announced that he had raised just more than $7 million in the first three months of 2003, shy of the $7.4 million estimate Edwards released Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said his campaign had raised more than $3 million during the period, while the campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean announced contributions of about $2.6 million.
Other campaigns continued to tally donations, but none of the other five Democrats was expected to produce higher figures. Candidates must report official totals to the Federal Election Commission by April 15.
Though little noticed by the public, early fund-raising numbers are closely watched by party activists as a sign of candidates' viability and can produce momentum in early nominating states.
While Edwards had a better quarter than Kerry, the Kerry campaign on Wednesday chose to highlight the $8 million it has in the bank, calling it "a sum unprecedented for any Democratic candidate at this stage of a presidential campaign." The figure is about $1.2 million more than then-Vice President Al Gore had on hand at this stage in the 2000 campaign.
Kerry's account was bolstered by a transfer of $2.65 million in money left from his 2002 Senate campaign as well as donations from December, before Edwards entered the race.
Edwards spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said Wednesday that she did not have a figure available for how much money Edwards has in the bank, though his presidential account was certain to be smaller than Kerry's. On Tuesday, aides said that Edwards also has about $1.4 million in a separate Senate re-election account that has not been transferred to his Senate campaign.
Another of the top-tier candidates, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, has yet to release a first-quarter fund-raising estimate. Spokesman Erik Smith said the campaign is being careful in compiling a tally because "we want to get it right." He declined to say where Gephardt would fall among the other contenders but said "we'll be competitive."
Among the best-known hopefuls, the total posted by Lieberman, Gore's 2000 running mate, was widely considered the most disappointing. Lieberman spokesman Jano Cabrera said that $2.1 million of the $3 million raised by the campaign came in during March. "Once we had our fund-raising operation in place, we really hit our stride," he said.
Washington correspondent John Wagner can be reached at (202) 662-4380 or firstname.lastname@example.org.