WASHINGTON — For Republicans, watching Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama fight for supremacy in fundraising is not just a spectator sport. It is a look into the future, and the GOP isn't cheering.
Obama and Clinton together raked in as much as seven times as much cash in February as John McCain, the all-but-certain Republican nominee.
The Democrats, particularly Obama, are also developing a broad base of fervent donors whose help goes beyond sending money.
Some Republicans are sounding alarms.
"Since the midterm election of 2006, Democrats have had an enthusiasm gap with Republicans," said GOP strategist Scott Reed. "They have big crowds, raise more money and appear to have more excitement on the campaign trail. Couple this with turnout numbers, which are off the charts, and Republicans are going to have a big challenge in the fall."
Obama raised $36 million in January. Clinton aides said she raised $35 million in February, and estimates for Obama place his haul for the month at more than $50 million. McCain, who raised about $12 million in January, is on a similar pace for February, according to his campaign.
Such a money advantage could mean that for the first time since post-Watergate campaign finance laws, a presidential candidate may forgo public financing for the general election. That would mean turning aside $85 million for September and October on the assumption that he or she could raise more.
McCain has been trying to hold Obama to an agreement to accept the general election public funds, but Democrats are counseling Obama against it. They believe Republicans will use outside groups that can raise unlimited amounts of money to close any financial advantage Democrats may have.
"If we take the federal money we are disarming ourselves unilaterally against the Republicans," said Steve Murphy, a Democratic strategist who advised Bill Richardson's presidential campaign.
Democratic-leaning outside groups are already entering the contest, promising to target McCain for his stance on the war in Iraq.
The Democratic financial advantage has been evident for more than a year. The eight Democrats who were in the presidential race last year raised a combined $253 million in 2007 from individual donors; the nine Republicans raised a combined $207.5 million. Obama's $36 million in January exceeded the amount raised by all six Republican candidates who were still competing in that month.
The discrepancy was enough to lead Republican National Committee Treasurer Tim Morgan to sound off last weekend in San Francisco during a California Republican convention. Morgan said the RNC has budgeted $150 million for the year, $100 million less than it raised in 2004 when President Bush ran against Democrat John Kerry.
"I look at the Barack Obama campaign in some horror," he said, noting the Democrat's totals so far this year. "That should give all of us a pause."
Republican officials said their party usually budgets conservatively. It planned to raise $172 million in 2004 and ended up raising nearly $249 million. They said party fundraising is ahead of schedule so far this year.
"Republican candidates will have the necessary resources to achieve victory, and communicate the message and mobilize the vote this fall," RNC spokesman Danny Diaz said.
The RNC is the only GOP committee that is faring better than its Democratic counterpart.
Obama and Clinton are still competing, while McCain, anticipating Obama's nomination, is already targeting his campaign against him.
"The next 60 days is all about defining Obama in a way Clinton was never able to do," Reed said. "The big crowds, the curiosity factor and the high platitude speeches have worked _ it's a true movement. But can the wave keep a crest all the way to November? I don't think so. It's impossible."
Still, either Obama, who is leading in the number of delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination, or Clinton would clearly have the upper hand going into the general election.
A fundraising advantage, Democrats say, would give the party's nominee the opportunity to compete in states that traditionally have not been considered general election battlegrounds.
"Obama can extend the contest to the Deep South," Murphy said. "That would offset the Southwestern advantage that McCain might have."
Murphy says he believes the Democratic nominee will raise twice as much as the GOP candidate and the Republican Party combined.
"I think $85 million for the general election season is a lot of money to give up," said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan organization that studies campaign finance trends. "That's $1 million a day in spending."
But Obama and Clinton spent about $1 million a day in January alone, when they were competing in far fewer states than they would face in a general election.
"I don't know where this tops out," Malbin said. "Even now, only about 2 percent of the public is giving to politicians. It tops out when people who are interested in politics are tapped out."
Associated Press writer Laura Kurtzman contributed to his report from California.