BOSTON (AP) _ Mitt Romney blew away the top-ranked Republican presidential candidates in fundraising during the first three months of the year, reporting he had raised an astonishing $23 million. Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, favored in the polls, trailed far behind.
The former Massachusetts governor's first-quarter tally put him on a financial par with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the leading Democratic candidate. On Sunday, she reported raising $26 million.
``People are having a positive reaction to him and are willing to open up a vein for him,'' David King, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, said of Romney.
Former New York Mayor Giuliani, who has amassed a sizable lead in national popularity polls of GOP candidates, reported raising $15 million this quarter _ more than McCain, but still considerably behind Romney.
McCain's $12.5 million appeared to be another sign the Arizona senator's campaign is flagging.
``For McCain, it looks like he's made campaign finance reform work,'' King said. Everyone knew he didn't like the role of money in politics, but one would have hoped he would have liked the role of money in his own campaign. He's now coming to this race a day late and $12 million short.''
One other GOP contender, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a favorite of social conservatives, reported raising over $1.9 million, including a $575,000 transfer from his Senate campaign account.
``The Republican activists who actually get out and do the hard work of winning elections are responding very favorably to Sen. Brownback's candidacy, and we are looking forward to running a strong issue-based, positive campaign and continuing to activate the grassroots,'' Rob Wasinger, Brownback's campaign manager, said.
Still, the disparity had the potential to winnow the field and trigger a reshuffling among the top tier of candidates. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, had previously trailed not only Giuliani and McCain, but also former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson in some national popularity polls of Republican voters. Thompson has yet to declare his candidacy.
Romney worked assiduously to alter the financial lineup, scheduling over 20 events during the 31 days of March. Along the way, he tapped extensive contacts from his work as a venture capitalist, past chairman of the Republican Governors Association and longtime involvement in the Mormon church.
``Facing opponents in an extremely competitive fundraising field who enjoy universal name identification and the clear advantage of existing networks of contributors, Governor Romney's fundraising totals are indicative of the extraordinary success the campaign has had at building an organization and stirring excitement among grassroots activists responding to his message,'' said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden.
Giuliani, meanwhile, reported raising nearly $17 million since forming his presidential exploratory committee in November. He also had $11 million cash on hand as of Saturday, the end of the first quarter, according to his aides.
In a statement, Mike DuHaime, Giuliani's campaign manager, said the campaign was thrilled with the total, despite what he called a ``late start'' to fundraising. Yet the ex-mayor held his first major fundraiser in New York in December, while other top rivals didn't do so until January or later.
McCain's campaign released its fundraising totals while the senator was on a fact-finding mission in Iraq.
McCain tried to lower expectation last week, saying he didn't like to raise money, had gotten off to a late start and was ``going to pay a price for it.''
Republicans in Washington have privately said that McCain's rate of spending has been alarming, even as Giuliani has opened a wide lead in national popularity polls.
While McCain acknowledged he ``hoped to do better,'' his campaign manager, Terry Nelson, said in a statement: ``Fundraising in the first quarter is no more important than fundraising throughout the entire primary election campaign.''
All of the money Romney raised was for the primary election campaign. Candidates had the option of raising up to $2,300 from each donor for both the primary and a prospective general election campaign.
Only $48,000 of the money McCain raised was for a potential general election race, while all but $100,000 of the money Giuliani raised was for a primary campaign.
Among the other GOP hopefuls, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee reported raising a little more than $500,000. On the Democratic side, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson pulled in $6.3 million.
The Clinton campaign has been simultaneously raising money for a potential general election campaign, but it has refused to reveal how much of the first-quarter tally could be spent only in the event she emerges as her party's nominee. She has also transferred $10 million left over from her re-election campaign last fall, giving her committee overall income of $36 million.
One of Clinton's principal rivals, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., had not released a total as of Monday afternoon, touching off speculation about a significant figure.
Romney's total included an unexpected asterisk: a $2.35 million loan from the candidate himself. In January, the Republican stunned the field by raising $6.5 million on a single day in which he invited his supporters to Boston and asked them to call their professional and social circles for donations.
At that time, the millionaire venture capitalist said ``it would be akin to a nightmare'' if he donated to his campaign, although he reserved that right. On Monday, a senior adviser said Romney ended up lending the funds as ``seed money'' for his campaign. The adviser said Romney had done so before making his ``nightmare'' comment.
The prior records for first-quarter fundraising were held by Republican Phil Gramm of Texas and Democrat Al Gore of Tennessee. Gramm raised $8.7 million in 1995, while Gore raised $8.9 million in 1999. Gramm dropped out race before New Hampshire's 1996 primary, while Gore went on to win the 2000 Democratic nomination.