Washington If money talks in politics, Sen. Sam Brownback's nascent presidential campaign is but a ghostly whisper.
And if he doesn't increase his fundraising soon, Brownback risks being drowned out before voters even think about tuning in to 2008.
Money is only one of the obstacles that have emerged to hamper the 49-year-old Kansas Republican's long-shot effort to ride his politics of conservatism and faith to the White House.
He's made a few visits but no inroads in New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary. He's being outflanked on the right in Iowa, site of the nation's first caucus. A spate of national media attention hasn't translated into higher poll numbers, where he's the top pick of only 1 percent to 2 percent of registered Republicans. And he upset a big chunk of the conservative base by taking a moderate stance on the burning issue of immigration.
Announcement in November
Aides acknowledge that the obstacles are present and growing, but they say Brownback is hesitant to be more active until he decides whether to run. He doesn't plan to do that until after November's congressional elections.
"We have suggested maybe it's time to put somebody on the ground in Iowa, maybe it's time to hire more national fundraisers, maybe it's time we hire you a big speechwriter," said Brian Hart, Brownback's spokesman. "He does not want us running around fundraising for '08 if he decides not to run. He feels that would be a little dishonest."
For the same reason, Brownback's aides have been unable to aggressively woo activists in states with early primaries and caucuses, where other candidates have staffers working to line up supporters.
Experts say he who hesitates is lost, as the presidential cycle revs up earlier than ever.
"Brownback is not currently viewed as a serious presidential possibility," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. "Nobody's going to get nominated raising the kind of money he's raising and spending as little time in key states as he is. ... He had potential. But it's getting late."
Brownback is far behind his better-known competitors in the money chase.
He reported raising less than $200,000 so far this year for his Restore America Political Action Committee; such PACs are how prospective candidates raise money and pay expenses before opening a formal campaign committee. He has about $125,000 left in the bank. Add to that the money left in his Senate campaign fund, which can be transferred to a presidential treasury, and Brownback has about $760,000 on hand.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the consensus Republican frontrunner, has hauled in more than $3.7 million this year and has $2.8 million in the bank. Other leading candidates also have raised millions this year, although Hart points out that many have just a few hundred thousand dollars more than Brownback in cash on hand.
Early money helps candidates establish credibility among media, party VIPs and the volunteers who give campaigns traction. It pays for talented staff. It goes to party committees and candidates in key states to build good will.
"We never thought we'd be the highest fundraiser," Hart said. "That's not the way the dynamic works. We were always going to be the grassroots candidate."
Those grassroots haven't taken hold yet.
Brownback's three trips to New Hampshire, all one-event-and-out affairs, are most notable for their apparent lack of understanding of what Granite Staters expect from candidates, said James Pindell, managing editor of PoliticsNH.com, a well-regarded Web site.
"What typically happens is a candidate will come, do a morning event and an evening event, and spend hours in between sitting in hotel rooms meeting with party activists," Pindell said. "This is basic. Brownback's not doing that. It makes me wonder who's giving him advice about coming to New Hampshire.
"A Sam Brownback trip to New Hampshire is unlike all others. It's oddly planned and oddly executed," Pindell said.
Fran Wendelboe, a state legislator and a leader of New Hampshire social conservatives, said Brownback called her only once, about a year ago.
"I personally haven't heard anything from him, nor have I heard anybody talking about him," Wendelboe said. "A lot of the other players have been here and started spreading money around. ... There hasn't been anybody beating the bushes or making phone calls" for Brownback.
Brownback's aides say Iowa, next door to Kansas and with a bigger bloc of conservative activists, is more important to their efforts. There the senator is in better shape. He has made nine visits, and law school chum Chuck Hurley, president of the conservative Iowa Family Policy Center, is helping.
"That's an asset," said Tom Cope, an Iowa lobbyist and Republican strategist. "When someone like a Chuck Hurley says, 'This is my guy,' that makes a lot of difference to some folks."
Yet even there, where social conservatives make up as much as 25 percent of the state's Republican caucus-goers, Brownback is at risk from Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, who also is positioning himself as the race's true conservative. Huckabee has full-time staff in the state.
"Brownback and Huckabee are going after the social conservative element," Cope said. "Huckabee is a little more active and has kind of an interesting message that has appeal in Iowa. That's given Huckabee an advantage over Brownback."
Even Hurley agrees.
"Huckabee's been out here a lot," Hurley said. "Obviously that's what it takes. Sam's gotta crank it up a bit."
Polls show stagnant support
Brownback's high-profile roles during two Supreme Court nominations, the effort to publicize the Darfur genocide and the fight against expanded embryonic stem cell research won much national media attention during the past year. But polls show him mired at 1 percent or 2 percent among Republican presidential contenders - about where he was a year ago.
To be sure, it's too early for polls to matter much. But Brownback's moderate stance on the smoldering immigration issue isn't likely to help move those numbers. Brownback supports a Senate bill that many conservative activists say amounts to amnesty for illegal immigrants. His stand was slammed by conservative publications, on talk radio and in the blogosphere.
Brownback's camp insists there's still time for him to climb in the ring.
"We think it doesn't take too much effort to get on the radar screen in some of the early states," Hart said. "You just focus on them. And we have yet to focus on them."