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Published: Friday, 7/25/2003

A Texas-sized war chest

The information that President Bush has already scooped up $32.7 million for his 2004 election campaign, and the informal ranking of the nine or 10 Democratic presidential candidates by how much they have been able to accumulate in their campaign war chests so far, collectively raise troubling questions about American presidential campaigns.

It seems that to some degree Americans measure a candidate's prospects to be elected president or to be chosen as his or her party's candidate by the amount of money he can collect from donors to achieve that end.

One assumption of that approach is that the candidate who spends the most on the election - or who spends the money he accumulates most effectively - is the one who will win.

It is also to imply that a candidate's ability to raise money is a gauge of his potential effectiveness as president. That suggests that the votes of the American people are basically for sale.

They may be considered to be for sale indirectly, through television ad campaigns, through campaign events organized most efficiently across as much of the country as possible, and through the largest staffs possible put to work promoting the candidate.

Basically, however, there is assumed to be some linkage between how much money the candidate has and spends and his chances of being elected.

Now that's pretty scary if one still has some hazy idea in the back of his head that America should choose its presidents on the basis of the quality of the ideas that he will put into effect as president, his ability to attract able - as opposed perhaps to rich - people to his staff, and the integrity of character that he is likely to bring to the job.

Mr. Bush's current poll numbers, although dropping to some extent as Americans begin to scratch their heads about casualty figures in Iraq, the wisdom of the approach that put us there, and the financial policies of the administration, are consistent with the amount of money he has so far accumulated for his campaign, compared with what the Democrats are collecting.

In the past three months Mr. Bush has collected more money than all the Democratic candidates combined.

Mr. Bush's “Rangers” - an apt nickname given his past ownership of the Texas Rangers baseball team - collected $200,000 each for him; his “Pioneers” did $100,000 each.

Whether the relative electability of the Democratic candidates, ranging from former Vermont governor Howard Dean at the top through so-far undeclared retired General Wesley Clark at the bottom, is reflected in the success of their fund-raising campaigns in the past quarter is questionable.

In fact, this process of assessment is way too much like handicapping a horse race, given the serious business that it actually is in this time of international terror and domestic fiscal peril.

Everyone has probably always said it, and saying so has probably changed almost nothing, but it is true that the choice of the American president is far too important to be principally about money.

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