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The gold brick trail

Walter C. Jones

Morris News

ATLANTA - Even though the newly disclosed identity of the shadowy Deep Throat character may cast doubt about his motives in tipping off the Watergate reporters, his advice to "follow the money" still rings true - especially campaign money.

After all, it was the series of reforms following the Watergate crisis that led to the requirement that campaigns document who gives them money and how they spend it. Initially meant to stop abuses, the reports have become a valuable tool for savvy political observers.

This year the yellow bricks in the money trail are actually gold ingots. It is already an election cycle to break records.

The candidates for the seven main statewide races have so far raised a combined $21 million a year before the qualifying period. Amazing considering many candidates haven't even entered the races they are expected to join, and some incumbents have done no serious fund raising.

This pace should guarantee that no television program in the summer and fall of 2006 remains untouched by political advertising. (Alas, newspapers have become a refuge from such ads because the hunting for late-deciding suburban-women swing voters is more fruitful among the viewers of "Desperate Housewives" than the readers of op-ed pieces.)

Campaign insiders are already fretting about voter fatigue - the malaise that depresses turnout among people who grow sick of hearing anything to do with the election. The cacophony created by two dozen well-funded candidates could sour viewers on all of the races.

Donor fatigue has also been whispered. Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, for example, opted to do his fund raising early to get out of the way of Gov. Sonny Perdue and the big dogs of the statewide races.

Even the down-ballot statewide candidates issued press releases gloating of how they bested all records for money raised at this stage in their respective races. Of course, it was a little humorous that Casey Cagle, the Gainesville Republican senator running for lieutenant governor, had to issue his release midweek to exercise his bragging rights before primary rival Ralph Reed released his on the Friday deadline, surpassing Cagle's "record."

Ironically, Cagle may have scored more points in the "expectations game" with his $600,000 than Reed did with his $1.4 million. Cagle surprised many observers while Reed's results fell below the $2 million mark knowledgeable insiders had come to expect.

Cathy Cox also beat expectations by out raising fellow Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor in the gubernatorial sweepstakes. The secretary of state's $2 million topped Taylor's $1.5 million during the first six months of the year.

Part of how she has done it is by talking about her viability. Of the three kinds of donors - personal friends who'll give regardless, philosophical supporters who are swayed by message and the pragmatists - the last group has the deepest pockets but only wants to give to a winner. They're either after access or simply want to see their party triumph no matter who's the candidate, and they're don't want to waste money on a loser.

Cox's team has been trumpeting recent polls that show her greater viability in a primary and general election.

The latest was completed July 12 by the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for Cox's campaign. In asking 801 likely Democratic primary voters from June 19-23, the firm found they favored her 56-36 over Taylor, with a margin of error of 3.5 percent. She was ahead in every demographic group and region.

Taylor has spent $43,000 on a polling firm of his own, and he hasn't released any of those results.

Candidates tend to be selective about what they reveal of their own confidential surveys, sort of like a woman who suffers the discomfort of a thong to prevent panty lines but will let her bra straps show.

The polls sparked speculation that Taylor might be persuaded for the sake of the party to seek his current job and block Reed, but Taylor isn't one to shy away from a rumble. Plus, such early polls really only measure name recognition, something Cox is benefiting from by the coincidence of a state school superintendent with the same name and a series of government-funded ads warning about consumer fraud that featured her as the spokeswoman.

Cox's fundraising report impressed observers for another reason: the efficiency of her cash machine.

Comparing her "burn rate," or ratio of expenses to donations, shows she only spent about 9 percent of what she raised while Perdue spent 12 percent, and Taylor burned 24 percent.

Of course, since she started later than Taylor and Perdue, she was gathering the low-hanging fruit that's so easy to get initially with some phone calls. The report at year end will prove if she can maintain that level of efficiency once the staff comes on board, the postage and printing bills come due, and the fundraising dinners begin.

For instance, Jim Martin's budding campaign for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor has a burn rate of just 3 percent. But he's only been at it a month. While the $230,000 he raised in that time is respectable, it's certainly from friends and contacts he made in the legislature and as the head of the Department of Human Resources.

Reed's burn rate of 7 percent and Cagle's of 14 percent are more realistic and meaningful. The complete numbers for the other candidate in that race so far, former Democratic legislator Greg Hecht, aren't available yet from the state, so there's no way to tell what it cost to get the $420,000 he announced raising.

Reed is a professional fundraiser with experience on the national stage, making him the expected money leader. Yet, he still beat the expectation game in one respect. Sure, he was destined to outraise Cagle, Martin and Hecht, but most thought the money would come in big checks from out of state. Instead, the vast majority came from within Georgia, and the average contribution was less than $1,000, indicating that he's tapping into a broad base of supporters who like his message - not just the friends and those hopping on the bandwagon.

While political operatives will be combing through the thousands of pages of these reports for weeks in search of other nuggets, the most obvious message found in them is that the professionalism of this cycle's campaigns is high in both parties. That means candidates are likely to be visible around the state asking for votes and donations early in the cycle.

Well-funded candidates translate into heated primaries and general elections that won't be completely dominated by the top of the tickets. And better clues about who will ultimately win won't be accessible until the money trail gets a little longer.

Walter Jones is the bureau chief for Morris News Service and has been covering Georgia politics since 1998. He can be reached at walter.jones@morris.com or 404-589-8424.