COVER STORY: `So, Can I Count on Your Support?' ; It's the Most Powerful Job in the World. and the Most Expensive to Apply for. the US Presidential Elections May Be More Than a Year Away, but Candidates Are Already Declaring, and Look Set to Break All Records with Their Campaign Spending. ANDREW BUNCOMBE Investigates

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In a small and cramped eighth-floor office no more than a stone's throw from the White House, John Hlinko is avidly tearing open an envelope that bears a postmark from Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Inside is a cheque for $30 (pounds 20) made out from a woman called Lynn. "This is the sort of thing we've been getting all the time," says Hlinko, as he puts the cheque away into a drawer. "It says here that she's an administrative assistant."

Hlinko knows the importance of such cheques - big or small. As co- founder of a group trying to persuade retired General Wesley Clark to run for president, he knows the value of every cent they receive. With $100,000 (pounds 63,000) in donations from people such as Lynn from Bartlesville, Hlinko's group, Draft Wesley Clark, has managed to raise support for the former Nato Supreme Commander among Democratic voters from nothing a few weeks ago to somewhere around five per cent. The group members feel quite pleased with themselves.

But the reality is that if Clark is to get serious about getting the top job, he is going to have to get serious about getting his hands on some serious money. Running for the presidency of the US is a hugely expensive - some might say hugely wasteful - undertaking that threatens the finances of everyone involved. And, of course, it is only really worth it if you manage to win the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: it can literally be a matter of make or break.

"Access to money is very important, especially in the primary phase of the election," says Tony Corrado, professor of government at Colby College, Maine, and a veteran observer of US elections. "It's still not more important than the candidate, neither is it more important than the general state of the nation. But other than that, money is the most important thing. Even if you have a message, you need money to get that message out."

Even at this stage, more than 14 months away from polling day, it is already clear that the 2004 US presidential election will beat all records when it comes to the amount of money spent by the candidates on their campaigns. To an extent this is not unusual: every presidential election in recent history has been more expensive than the previous one.

But what is set to make the 2004 election stand out is the scale of the increase from other recent contests. Just consider this: 24 years ago, Ronald Reagan raised and spent $21m (pounds 13m) in the primary stages of the 1980 election. This time around fellow Republican George Bush, whose father served two terms as Reagan's vice-president before winning the most senior office himself, is poised to raise and spend more than $200m (pounds 126m). Some say the figure might be even higher.

Just where does all this money go? How can George Bush possibly spend $200m - the same amount that he has pledged to spend fighting Aids in South Africa next year - campaigning, especially when it is all but certain that as the incumbent he will not face an opponent from his own party? How can all that money - which Bush will be allowed to raise because he has opted to stay out of the publicly funded "match-funding" arrangement that would have limited him to just $45m (pounds 28m) during the primary - just disappear?

"The biggest cost - up to 60 per cent of your total budget - goes on television advertising," explains Rick Davis, campaign manager for Republican Senator John McCain when he challenged Bush during the 2000 presidential primaries. "You can pay up to $10,000 (pounds 6,000) for a 30-second commercial. How long will it run? It's based on a system of achieving 1,000 Gross Rating Points (GRPs) which means a certain percentage of people have seen the advertisement a certain number of times."

The cost of advertising changes from market to market. In a medium-sized "market", such as Boston, it may cost $100,000 to achieve 1,000 GRP. "In New York it might be three times that," says Davis. …