All aboard for the money primary

To become a starter in the White House race, cash is the first qualification, says Rupert Cornwell in Washington
The first presidential primary for the Republicans is already under way, not in Iowa or New Hampshire but on the rubber chicken circuit - a chase not for votes but for money.

Last week the money primary claimed another victim. Just 20 days earlier, the former vice president, Dan Quayle, had to all intents and purposes declared his candidacy. Now he joins two other former Bush administration officials, Jack Kemp and Dick Cheney, fancied contenders both, who dropped out when faced with the daunting financial arithmetic of running for the White House in 1996.

The first primary, or more properly caucuses, to be held in Iowa, takes place next February. By the end of March 1996, almost three quarters of delegates to the Republican national convention will have been picked in a string of primaries packed into seven weeks, covering almost every important state, including California, Texas, New York and Florida.

No longer will a candidate have the luxury of putting up an unexpectedly good showing in Iowa or New Hampshire eight days later, enabling him to finance himself as he goes along. This time, the professionals reckon, a candidate will need between $15m and $25m (£9m and £15m) up front to finance virtually simultaneous campaigns in the major states.

Given the lack of time, this campaigning will be mainly via television, much in expensive media markets like California and New York, the two biggest prizes in terms of delegates. Hence today's money primary, where bank balances are scrutinised at least as closely as the opinion polls.

As Mr Quayle points out, a candidate now starting from scratch will have to raise anything up to $500,000 a week - quite apart from his more orthodox tasks of working out policies, campaign strategies and so forth. "I had 20 fundraisers lined up; we could have raised $2m in my home state of Indiana," Mr Quayle said on NBC's Meet The Press yesterday. "I could have raised $15, $20m. But I wouldn't have enjoyed it."

And Mr Quayle was more fortunate than some; he enjoyed high name recognition. So too does Bob Dole, Senate majority leader and clear front runner. He had $2m in hand, but the money scramble has forced him to confirm his intentions months earlier than he would have liked.

For others contemplating a candidacy, the pressure for a quick decision is now intense. Probably Colin Powell, with his name recognition, popularity and prestige, alone has the luxury of being able to wait (should he decide to run at all). For the remainder, including James Baker, the former secretary of state, and governors Pete Wilson, of California, and William Weld, of Massachusetts, it is a case of very soon, or never.

The clear leader in the money primary is Senator Phil Gramm, of Texas, with $5m in unspent funds. He formally kicks off his campaign on 24 February, with a fundraiser the night before expected to yield over $2m. With less fanfare, the third seemingly certain entrant, former governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, has also put together a top-notch fundraising operation - as he has to, given his poor name recognition.

The mathematics are simple. Maximum permitted personal donations are $1,000, those of action committees $5,000. Either a candidate has huge personal means (i.e. Ross Perot, or Michael Huffington who sank $27m of his fortune into his 1994 California Senate race), or it is the chicken dinner circuit. Mr Alexander had to submit to 16 such occasions last month alone.

So why do they do it ? Clearly, after their sweep of Congress in November, the White House looks more winnable than ever for Republicans in 1996. Just the other day, one poll showed 55 per cent of the electorate do not think President Clinton should even seek a second term. But is so much effort to amass money worth it?

In short, the four-yearly quest for the presidency has become an even more demented exercise than usual. The brutal schedules, obsessive media scrutiny, intrusions into privacy, and the complete surrender of personal dignity, has long since tended to scare off many of the best potential candidates.

Dan Quayle, his myriad detractors would say, is not in that category. But in other ways he is ideally equipped. His skin is thickened to the point of armour plating. His children are nearly grown up, and Marilyn Quayle is a formidable, extremely ambitious political wife. But, he confessed, his family's reaction to his decision to withdraw "ranged from relief to ecstasy".

Bill Kristol, a leading Republican strategist explained Mr Cheney's pull-out this way: "To be a candidate you have to be a bit insane. Dick Cheney is a very sane man." But as another Republican operative noted: "If you can survive the process, you can survive the presidency".