Why Money Won't Matter: Fund-Raising at This Stage Is a Fancy Poll. You Can Have Half as Much Cash as the Next Guy and Still Win. the Issue: Clark's Political Skills

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Byline: Jonathan Alter

If Wes Clark goes nowhere, you can already hear the tired punditry: He didn't have enough cash. He started too late. Blah, blah, blah. This analysis has already begun, though it is close to meaningless. Let's start with the money. In the primary season, fund-raising is mostly just a fancy and not terribly accurate poll--a way to measure support among the wealthy and, with the Internet, the passionate. You can have half as much money as the next guy and still win because, unlike Senate campaigns, presidential contests are fought out in the "free media," where live-TV skills trump paid ads. Money helps build a field organization that can cushion later missteps, but it's the symptom, not the cause, of success. I've seen candidates win Super Tuesday states where they had no ads on the air and only a half-dozen volunteers on the ground. Remember: momentum generates money, not the other way around.

Similarly, early starts are relevant only if the candidate is simultaneously obscure and in touch with the national mood, like Jimmy Carter in 1976. Four and a half months--the time between now and the first primaries--is plenty of time to introduce oneself to the voters. While it's true that Iowa and New Hampshire voters like to meet their presidential candidates personally before they vote for them, there's an easy solution for Clark--skip the cumbersome, labor-intensive Iowa caucuses, where the Democratic Party is not in sync with the military anyway. Al Gore in 1988 and John McCain in 2000 blew off Iowa and paid no price; they lost the nomination for other reasons.

Let's admit it: the "money primary" and early field organizing are covered so extensively so that we political reporters have something to do before the real fun begins. Sorry to use another sports metaphor, but this is like handicapping the baseball season based on the size of a team's payroll and how early the players report to spring training. It sounds obvious, but the only real way to judge both athletes and politicians is by how they perform on the field. Can they keep it between the foul lines? Execute a squeeze play? Work the umpires (in this case, reporters)?

The political equivalent of these attributes boils down to timing, message and temperament. If a candidate can master all three--and not alienate the press--his future is bright. While Clark looks to be in good shape on the first two, the third remains a big question mark. He has to adapt to all the requirements of this different sport. When Michael Jordan tried out for the White Sox, he could run and field but couldn't hit. …