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GOP Race No Clearer After Funding Reports

There were hopes that third quarter presidential fundraising figures would clarify the state of the Republican Party’s primary race. If anything, they’ve made it harder to unravel.

After a late entry into the race, Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson said he will report a respectable $8 million in donations between July 1 and Sept. 30.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, appears to have stabilized his campaign after a harrowing summer free-fall brought on by the Iraq war’s unpopularity and his advocacy of immigration reform.

McCain’s camp is expected to report that it raised about $5 million in the third quarter and still has $2 million in debts.

While those numbers may not sound impressive, they do show the campaign has significantly cut back its expenses and will likely have enough money to fight on to Iowa.

In July, the McCain campaign was essentially broke. Now, he’s third in some polls in New Hampshire.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney haven’t disclosed their third quarter tallies.

Both are expected to post higher figures than Thompson and McCain.

But an ongoing conservative reassessment of the candidacy of the socially moderate Giuliani, and of Romney’s reliance on his personal bank account, suggests that no candidate has a lock on the lead as they enter the 2006 final quarter.

On the Democratic side, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama continued his dominance. He reported raising more than $19 million between July 1 and Sept. 30.

The national newcomer also continued to expand on his already record-setting donor base.

More than 93,000 new donors gave to his campaign in the last three months, bringing total givers to 350,000 and the primary total raised to $75 million.

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards’ healthy $12 million cash balance for the third quarter lent credibility to his argument that financial distress is not driving his decision to opt into a presidential public funding program that limits campaign spending.

When Edwards announced that decision last month, it appeared he’d reached the same fork in the road as McCain did in July after the disastrous second quarter showing.

But fundraising figures released from the North Carolina campaign Sunday showed Edwards had raised $7 million in the third quarter.

The figure is well below Obama’s, and front-runner New York Sen. Hillary Clinton also seems likely to top it.

Although Edwards is sure to be heavily outgunned, he remains on track to raise his 2006 goal of $40 million, and his tight control on spending is making the most of what he is raising.

By complying with the public financing program, Edwards can expect an additional $10 million in taxpayer cash in January, which would give him about $20 million to spend before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

Edwards campaign adviser Joe Trippi acknowledged there was internal debate about which course to take.

Staying outside of the taxpayer-financed system allows candidates to raise and spend as much as possible.

Opting into it means accepting spending limits in primary states and an overall limit of about $50 million for the primary — a situation that could leave a party nominee vulnerable to a debilitating early attack from a well-financed challenger who didn’t participate in the program.

Trippi earlier this year had warned Democrats to avoid such peril.

But in a Monday telephone conference call with reporters, Trippi said he later became convinced that the muddled Republican primary could drag on, reducing the coffers of its nominee and delaying any attack on the Democratic nominee.

Edwards, who has long refused to take money from lobbyists and political action committees, has been trying to draw a clear distinction between himself and his opponents, particularly Clinton, who is taking money from Washington interest groups and advocats.

“Hillary Clinton does not want this primary framed on the issue of money and on the issue of who is going to shake up Washington,” Trippi said. “It’s a very clear choice in this election,” he added.

Clinton has not yet released her third quarter fundraising total.

Senior aides have estimated it will be between $17 and $20 million — more than double what Edwards reported.

“The Edwards campaign says it opted into the public financing system out of principle,” Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said. “Others might come to a different conclusion.”