WASHINGTON — Two object lessons this week in why money matters so much to political campaigns, in the persons of Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and John McCain.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, outpaced all Republican rivals in amassing campaign cash so far this year, a total of $44 million. That includes nearly $9 million of his own money. McCain, an Arizona senator, raised a disappointing $24.8 million over the same period.
The disparity allowed Romney - a little-known one-term governor of a state considered outside the political mainstream - to vault to front-running status in key early-voting states. And it's why McCain - an American hero, best-selling author and media darling - struggles to keep his campaign afloat.
Romney used his haul to buy 4,549 television ads through June 10, more than all the other candidates combined, according to a report by The Nielsen Co., which analyzes ad buys.
The ads ran in seven markets, including a torrent of more than 2,000 in Iowa, the site of the influential first-in-the-nation caucuses next Jan. 14. Another 788 ads ran in New Hampshire, where an equally important primary occurs eight days later.
"Romney is pounding news slots and the space between popular prime-time programming," said Bruce Gronbeck, the director of the University of Iowa's Center for Political Studies and Media Culture. "That's costing real money."
The result: Recent polls show that Romney is in first place in Iowa with an average lead of about 8 percentage points. In New Hampshire, recent polls put him in first place by an average of 7 points. At the beginning of this year, Romney languished at or near single-digit support in both states.
"Up here in New Hampshire, the fact that he's been on the air for so long has helped his poll numbers a great deal," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "They've enabled him to do things that he needed to do to get the exposure he's needed in the last six months. Stories that call him a contender weren't being written before."
Romney also has what's generally considered the best political operation in Iowa, which costs money to build and nurture. He's working for a strong showing at a Republican Party straw poll next month in Ames, Iowa. One way that campaigns do well in the straw poll is to pay supporters to show up.
On the other hand, Romney is spending money at a breathtaking clip, having gone through $32 million of what he's raised. His second-quarter fundraising saw a drop-off of about one-third from the first quarter despite all that advertising - which ran virtually unopposed - designed to sell him to potential supporters.
That means he'll need a lot more money to keep up the pace and make the sale with voters, especially when his rivals start advertising in earnest.
Then there's McCain, whose fundraising woes led him to lay off dozens of staffers this week and prevented him from mounting any television ads to combat the onslaught from Romney, whom McCain aides long have regarded as their most dangerous opponent.
How bad is it? McCain, once the front-runner, has sunk in some polls to single-digit support in Iowa, which aides say will be one of the main targets of his now-shoestring campaign.
Yet his campaign staff in Iowa was cut from 16 by more than half this week. Staff cuts in New Hampshire and South Carolina, which holds a primary Jan. 29, were smaller.
McCain's layoffs are supposed to free up money for advertising, mailings and other voter contacts. But the smaller staff also will make it harder for his organization to capitalize on whatever success that advertising has. Organization is especially important in a caucus state such as Iowa, because a caucus is more complex and time-consuming than simply going to a polling place and voting.
"You need (paid staff) to take all the positive exposure you get and put it to good use, to seal the deal and make sure all the bases are covered," Scala said.