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End Of Fundraising Period A Key Campaign Benchmark

Wednesday marked the end of the first quarter campaign fundraising period, and with it comes a better understanding for who the most viable primary and general election contenders are. Both incumbents and challengers made strong pushes for last-minute dough before last night's deadline, and many will likely release their totals before the April 15 Federal Election Commission filing deadline.

With deep minorities in both chambers of Congress, Republican challengers and campaign committees in particular will use their fundraising totals from the first three months to prove they have the financial strength to cut into the Democratic majority. But with many key primaries on tap in the next three months, some of the totals to be announced may be more critical in the short term.

Take Arizona, for instance. Sen. John McCain is facing a competitive primary challenge from conservative former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who has relentlessly attacked McCain's longtime independent streak within the GOP. McCain laid his cards on the table first, announcing Wednesday morning -- with more than half a day left to go before the 1st quarter deadline -- that he'd raised $2.2 million in the last three months and has $4.5 million cash-on-hand.

On the Democratic side, Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter made a strong early showing after just announcing his candidacy this month. According to the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, he's set to announce that he raised more than $2 million in just a matter of weeks. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) had reported raising more than $5 million at the end of 2009; both have already been spending big in early TV ad campaigns.

As the deadline neared, candidates' online appeals were flooding inboxes across the country, and not just in the races for Congress. Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, in a tough open seat race, sought to raise $25,000 yesterday alone. After reaching that goal, the campaign sent out another fundraising e-mail at 8:30 p.m. with a new stated goal of raising $2,500 in the last three-and-a-half hours.

The party campaign committees file on a monthly basis. In the last couple of days, the National Republican Congressional Committee issued at least two contribution requests that included a promise of matching funds. The committee ended February with $6 million on hand after out-raising its Democratic counterpart that month for the first time in months.

Last month, the NRCC got a boost from its annual NRCC March Dinner fundraiser, which brought in $7 million. That could help the GOP committee cut into the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's cash-on-hand advantage. The DCCC had nearly $20 million in the bank at the end of February.

The Republican Governors Association is reporting a massive cash on hand total at month's end: $31.2 million. That's an incredible total for the committee as it looks to retake a majority of governorships this November. The DGA is set to announce $8 million raised this month to leave it with $22 million cash on hand -- no small sum, but a lackluster one in comparison to the RGA's take.

The reports of questionable spending by the Republican National Committee just prior to the fundraising deadline means it won't be another month until we see whether it has an impact on the party's bottom line. But very quietly, other GOP committees had already been appealing to donors to send dollars their way in lieu of the RNC. The questionable spending under chairman Michael Steele will no doubt lead to even greater scrutiny of all candidates' spending habits.

As we wait for candidates to unveil their totals, here's a look at some Senate candidates whose reports will be critical.

** Marco Rubio (R-FL): At the end of 2009, the former Florida House Speaker had just caught up to Gov. Charlie Crist (R). Now he looks like the runaway favorite, and many expect his fundraising will match that polling surge. Crist had more than $7.5 million in the bank as of December 31, compared to $2 million for Rubio.

** Trey Grayson (R-KY): All of the Kentucky candidates are under the gun, with that state's primary just a month and a half away. Grayson had led Rand Paul at the end of the fourth quarter by about $100,000, but Paul has since jumped out to a significant lead in the polls. Grayson is taking a more aggressive posture in his TV campaigns, and will need the dollars to maintain that offensive against Paul's tea-party fueled effort. On the Democratic side, Dan Mongiardo had trailed Jack Conway by about $1 million, and needs a stronger showing to protect his lead.

** Reid Challengers (NV): For those certain of the Senate Majority Leader's pending demise, they need to remember that he had far more than all of his potential GOP challengers had raised combined at the end of 2009. In what is considered a lackluster field, a strong fundraising period could be enough for a candidate to start breaking from the pack.

** Jennifer Brunner (D-OH): The Ohio Secretary of State runs just as strong as Lee Fisher (D) against Rob Portman (R) in most polls, but her abysmal fundraising has many Buckeye State Democrats pressuring her to drop out. She seems determined to stay in through the May 4 primary, but with Portman waiting in the wings with a strong warchest, another weak FEC report could become a more prominent primary campaign issue.

** Senate Newcomers: A number of candidates, including some backed by the respective national committees, only entered the race in the past few months, and need strong early showings to demonstrate viability. Halter in Arkansas seems to have done that. Others who need to come out of the gate strong: Chris Coons (D-DE), Tom Cambpell (R-CA), Andrew Romanoff (D-CO), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Dan Coats (R-IN), Brad Ellsworth (D-IN), Cal Cunningham (D-NC).

-- Kyle Trygstad and Mike Memoli