The candidates for governor (well, most of them) released their first campaign disclosure reports last week and the numbers may tell us something about the direction of the 2010 race.
Among the Republicans, U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal is in the strongest financial position at this point, although the $1.2 million he raised does include a $250,000 loan.
Deal's opponents can criticize him for taking so much money from corporate and industry PACs, but that probably won't hurt him among primary voters. Corporate support may be considered a bad thing in Democratic circles, but it's a badge of honor among Republicans who worship the free market and think businesses should be allowed to do whatever they want to do.
The early reports from the GOP candidates also indicate that Secretary of State Karen Handel may have been oversold by the so-called political experts.
A month ago, the conventional wisdom was that Handel could be one of the persons in a Republican primary runoff because she was an attractive candidate who had the backing of Gov. Sonny Perdue (some of Perdue's operatives are working in Handel's campaign).
Her disclosure report shows that Handel is running a weak fourth in the money race, however. It seems as if some of Perdue's supporters, who you think would get behind Handel, are giving their money to other candidates instead.
One thing is very clear: The recession has dried up the pool of money that can be raised by political candidates.
Just compare the campaign disclosure reports that were filed in July 2005 at a similar point of the last governor's race.
The top two Democratic contenders at that point, Cathy Cox and Mark Taylor, raised a combined total of nearly $3.6 million. That's about three times the amount reported by all the Democratic candidates this time around. (Roy Barnes, who hasn't officially started raising money yet, did not report any contributions.)
Perdue reported a total of $3.9 million on the first report in 2005, which is about the amount of money raised by the top three GOP candidates combined (Nathan Deal, John Oxendine, Eric Johnson).
The total dollars reported by Cox, Taylor, and Perdue in 2005 is roughly twice the amount raised by all the gubernatorial candidates in this election cycle. If that ratio holds up, it means candidates will be able to spend only half as much money as they would normally spend.
What are the consequences of this decrease in dollars?
Candidates will not be able to spend huge amounts of money running TV commercials. With fewer dollars available, candidates will need to develop a less expensive "ground game" of volunteers who will work to get out the vote when the balloting begins.
This could hurt a candidate like Barnes, the Democratic front runner, whose strategy in past elections was to throw millions of dollars into commercial airtime and outspend his opponent.
I remember asking Barnes' campaign operatives in 2002 what sort of program they were putting together to get out the vote. I was curtly told, "All you need is the three M's: money, media and message. And if you have the first two, the last one doesn't count."
As Barnes found out, spending tons of money on TV won't always win an election. Perdue ran a racially charged campaign, but he also had a network of volunteers who persuaded conservative white voters in rural counties to turn out in large numbers and boot Barnes from office.
If Barnes tries to run his 2010 campaign by again relying mostly on waves of TV commercials, he may not have enough money to outspend his Republican opponent.
The Republican candidate who might be able to put the strongest ground game together is Oxendine. The insurance commissioner is a conservative politician who has veered even more sharply to the right — if that's possible — and in the process has probably locked up the party's hard-core, religious right faction.
These folks on the far right are the kind of people who will walk the streets, knock on doors, and turn out in droves on election day. In a race where there is less money to spend on TV and more of a need for grassroots organizing, they could possibly make the difference for Oxendine in the Republican primary.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia.