HUMBOLDT, Iowa -- After a powerful fund-raising start this year that conferred fleeting front-runner status on his candidacy, Senator John F. Kerry is due to end 2003 with his worst three months of fund-raising, and the blame inside his campaign is falling on both the candidate and the competition for money among the nine Democratic presidential contenders, according to Kerry fund-raisers and campaign aides.
Two top Kerry fund-raisers say the senator has not inspired potential donors with enough verve to embolden them to give despite their own skepticism that Kerry will beat Howard Dean in the upcoming primaries. Nor, they and other fund-raisers say, is there clear evidence that Kerry's two recent personal loans to his campaign, totaling $7.2 million, have led to significantly greater giving by donors who were heartened by Kerry's show of support, as some fund-raisers had hoped.
One of the two top fund-raisers, a longtime Kerry ally, compared the senator to Edmund S. Muskie -- the former Maine senator who lost the 1972 Democratic nomination despite high expectations -- in noting that Kerry's campaign raised $7 million during the first three months of 2003, yet is expected to net only $2 million to $3 million in the final quarter.
"I'm dying out there," said this Kerry fund-raiser, a veteran Democratic moneyman who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "There was so much excitement about John Kerry early on, and now there's none."
Other fund-raisers say the mood among donors is better than that, and point to the crowded Democratic field as the main reason for Kerry's fall in fund-raising behind Dean. The former Vermont governor is expected to raise more than $14 million in the fourth quarter, his advisers said Monday. The Kerry campaign declined yesterday to estimate its fourth-quarter total; top fund-raisers said they began this last quarter, on Oct. 1, with a $4 million goal, but said it was incrementally reduced over the last three months.
"Dean's success may have made if difficult for everybody else in the race," said Ben Barnes, a leading Kerry fund-raiser. "And there are so many people running. Even [Representative] Dennis Kucinich had 6 percent in one poll. Kerry's drawing a lot of interest, but so are others."
Alan Solomont, Kerry's finance chairman in Massachusetts, presented a sunny outlook for the campaign's political future, but declined to answer several questions about its fund-raising.
"There are more important things going on in the campaign than fund-raising," Solomont said. "John Kerry is improving in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, and people are starting to take a harder look at" Dean.
Kerry, in central Iowa yesterday to tout his plan to help family farms, said he was confident he would raise enough money this year and next to win the nomination.
"Obviously I've been out in the field a lot, so I've had a little less time to do some of the fund-raising," Kerry said in a brief interview. "But I feel we'll have enough money to compete. The better we do, the more we raise."
The Kerry camp's internal polls suggest Dean is holding a slight lead in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, with Kerry and Representative Richard A. Gephardt battling for second. In New Hampshire, a new poll by the American Research Group put Dean at 37 percent -- down eight points from the group's last poll -- to Kerry's 18 percent, down two points.
Some fund-raisers attributed their struggles to doubts among Democrats that Kerry has a solid game plan to win the nomination, with one citing the South Carolina primary as a case in point.
With its strategically important Feb. 3 primary, Kerry chose that state over Massachusetts to officially launch his campaign Sept. 2. Yet Kerry has not visited South Carolina since Sept. 12, and while he said on Dec. 18 that he would return to that state soon, his current schedule has him in Iowa and New Hampshire through Jan. 9. The campaign also recently moved two paid staff members from there to Iowa, reducing his number of South Carolina paid staff to five. A recent American Research Group poll of South Carolina voters, meanwhile, puts Kerry in eighth place out of the nine Democrats, at 2 percent -- one point behind former senator Carol Moseley Braun and one point ahead of Kucinich.
Several fund-raisers said they had not noticed a major shift in fund-raising since Kerry announced his loan plans Dec. 18. (The campaign declined to provide data on donations after the announcement.) These fund-raisers said donors were impressed with Kerry's seriousness in his own candidacy, but felt that only winning results would fire up donors.
"It's really, really tough out there for everybody," said Mark Weiner, a top Kerry fund-raiser based in Rhode Island, and a former fund-raiser for Bill Clinton. "They want to see the results in Iowa and New Hampshire and what will happen with this big field."
Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com.