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Energized donors give Democrats early edge

Associated Press • Apr 6, 2007 at 8:15 AM

WASHINGTON - Discontent with President Bush, the war in Iraq and politicians in Washington is playing out in the dollars and cents of the 2008 presidential campaign, where fund raising by Democratic candidates has far outstripped that of Republicans so far this year.

A new AP-Ipsos poll lays out underlying trends: More voters are identifying themselves as Democrats; regard for the Democratic-controlled Congress is on the increase; and approval for the overall job that President Bush is doing and for his handling of the war in Iraq are stuck in the cellar.

While even Republican candidates have raised impressive amounts of cash, Democratic donors have been increasingly energized by dissatisfaction with the status quo and by the notion that their party has a shot at reclaiming the White House.

"You can't divorce the president from the party as a whole," said Herbert Alexander, a University of Southern California professor emeritus and expert on campaign finance. "The Republican Party is undergoing a great deal of searching, for the right combination of issues, for the right candidate, and they're going to have to continue searching for a while."

Typically, Republicans outpace Democrats in early presidential campaign fund raising. In the first three months of 2007, however, Democratic presidential hopefuls pulled in $84 million, compared with $53 million for the Republicans.

"It's a reflection of continuing dissatisfaction with the president, the war and the performance of politicians in Washington," said Anthony Corrado, a government professor at Colby College in Maine and an expert on campaign finances. "The same type of pro-Democrat, pro-change political environment that fueled Democratic fund raising in the congressional races last year is carrying over into the presidential race this year."

The Democratic candidates in particular have attracted cash from smaller donors who use the Internet or other methods to chip in unsolicited money, Corrado said, "which is a good symbol of the amount of interest and excitement in the party."

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who raised a huge $25 million in the first quarter, attributed that showing to a sense among voters "that this is the opportunity, we've got this window where we might be able to take our country back."

The AP-Ipsos poll, conducted Monday through Wednesday, was replete with evidence of a foul mood toward the country's top Republican and pessimism overall. Bush's job approval rating was stuck at 35 percent and approval of his handling of the Iraq war, flat at 33 percent. Some 70 percent of Americans felt the country is on the wrong track.

The public didn't have much regard for how Democrats were handling Iraq, either, with 40 percent approving of their approach.

But there were other, positive markers for the Democrats. Overall approval for the Democratic-controlled Congress climbed 7 percentage points from last month to 40 percent, a 12-month high. And that jump was powered by an impressive 22-point increase in approval among Democrats. Longer-term, Democrats have opened a clear advantage over Republicans on what party voters identify themselves with. In the latest AP poll, 51 percent of registered voters identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party, compared with 42 percent for the GOP. That represents a significant difference from 2002, when party identification split almost evenly at 45 percent Democrat, 44 percent Republican. Stephen Weissman, associate director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, which tracks money in politics, cautioned against reading too much into the candidates' early fundraising figures. He said that with potential candidates Newt Gingrich and Fred Thompson among the Republicans still in the wings, some GOP donors may be hanging back until their preferred candidate is in the race. But given the overall political climate, Weissman said, "the Republicans clearly are at a political disadvantage and that may be showing in the increasing enthusiasm of Democratic donors." Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, pointed to figures showing the RNC had outraised the Democratic National Committee for the first two months of the year by a margin of $17.1 million to the Democrats' $9.6 million. "Our base is motivated and our fundraising demonstrates that," he said. DNC spokeswoman Stacie Paxton countered that while Republicans had the edge in party fundraising, their pace was down significantly from the first quarter of 2003, while the DNC saw its fundraising nearly double over the same period. "The momentum is on our side," she said. The AP-Ipsos telephone poll of 1,000 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points for all adults, 3.5 percentage points for registered voters.

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