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Before any votes, a 'money primary'

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It was "money, and only money," that led former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to drop out of the 2008 presidential race last Friday. What the Democrat meant, of course, was a lack of money. Not hard work or desire.

Politicians often speak of fundraising with disdain, but in fact, the money that donors are willing to shell out to candidates represents an important signal of a candidate's viability. Even if much of the public is not fully engaged in the intense nomination races under way in both parties, wealthy donors are. And they're voting with their checkbooks.

It's all part of what's come to be known as the "invisible primary" – the early jockeying for money, top campaign staff, and high-profile endorsements that winnow the presidential field long before any caucuses or primaries are held. A fourth piece, media buzz, magnifies the effect of the other three.

"Organization, fundraising, and endorsements are all various forms of currency, or various bets on the probability that a candidate will finish first or in the [top three]" in the early nominating contests, says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "No one wants to endorse a candidate they know will have to drop out early or won't be able to raise money or convince a top-drawer management team to take on their campaign."

Mr. Vilsack knew going in that he faced an uphill climb. Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois were likely to run, and a third likely candidate, former vice presidential nominee John Edwards, had already built up a strong organization in Iowa, which will hold the first nominating contest next January. All three ended up declaring, and currently occupy the top three spots in most polls of Democratic primary voters.

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