One odd thing about the Republican presidential race is that the strong front-runner, Donald Trump, isn't fundraising.
Soliciting contributions takes a huge amount of the time for most candidates, and the quarterly reports of how much they have raised and how much cash they have on hand become carefully watched measures of their campaigns' viability. None of that applies to Trump.
So the new fundraising reports for the third quarter that have been the talk of the political world for the last few days have an odd also-ran feel to them.
Of the candidates who are raising money, the winner is Ben Carson, who collected $20 million in the third quarter. After Carson is Jeb Bush, who raised $13.4 million; Ted Cruz, with $12.2 million, Carly Fiorina, with $6.8 million; and Marco Rubio, with $5.7 million. (The rest raised less than that.)
When Bush announced his total recently, his campaign immediately started a spat with Rubio over who had the better quarter. In an email memo accompanying the Bush announcement, campaign manager Danny Diaz noted that Bush's total was "double what Sen. Rubio and Carly Fiorina raised in the same time."
Six minutes later, the Rubio campaign sent out an email boasting that it finished the quarter "with more money in the bank than Jeb Bush for President and most other campaigns." It's true. Rubio reported having $10,975,988.78 in ready cash -- yes, he included the pennies -- while Bush had $10,271,229.
For those concerned that Bush had blown too much of his money on a bloated staff and private planes, Diaz noted that Bush's big expenditures were "substantial investments in data and grassroots operations across the February and March states, as well as paid advertising in New Hampshire."
For his part, Rubio stressed frugality. "The campaign bought office furniture from Craigslist, took over 300 UberX rides, and traveled on budget airlines including Frontier, Southwest, Jet Blue and Spirit," the Rubio note said.
It's all intended to reassure nervous donors that their money is being well spent. And Rubio has gone further, with leaks that he might soon receive big money from mega-donor Sheldon Adelson and some top New York contributors.
The Bush-Rubio dustup is a fight between the fifth-place and sixth-place candidates in the polls in Iowa, or, looked at another way, between the fourth-place and fifth-place candidates in New Hampshire, or between the fourth-place and sixth-place candidates in South Carolina, all according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls.
The first-place candidate in all those races is the guy who isn't fundraising -- Trump. And these days, Trump is looking stronger and stronger.
He first took the lead in the RCP national poll average on July 20, meaning he has spent a full three months at the top. And Trump is far ahead of the two squabbling candidates, Bush and Rubio, in the early voting states:
(1) In Iowa, Trump is up by 17 over Bush and 18 over Rubio, according to the most recent poll, by The Wall Street Journal.
(2) In New Hampshire, Trump is up by 10 over Bush and 11 over Rubio, according to the Journal.
(3) In South Carolina, Trump is up by 25 over Rubio and 30 over Bush in a brand-new CNN poll.
(4) In Nevada, Trump is up by 31 over Rubio and 32 over Bush, according to CNN.
Both the Bush and the Rubio campaigns are motivated by an unshakeable conviction that Trump will eventually decline. That conviction is shared by most political insiders. Perhaps it is correct, although each day forces those insiders to adjust their estimate of how long Trump can stay aloft.
In the meantime, the would-be front-runners, Jeb and Marco, are reduced to bragging about flying commercial and taking UberX. Their donors will apparently be pleased.
But it won't solve Bush's and Rubio's problem. At the moment, Trump is leading because he seems big and they seem small. More voters believe Trump will be a stronger leader than either Bush or Rubio. Trump's put-downs of both men -- that Bush is "low energy" and that Rubio is a "little boy" -- are outrageous but effective ways of reinforcing voter concerns that Bush doesn't have the drive to be president and Rubio doesn't have the maturity.
There's still time for those perceptions to change. But for the moment, Bush and Rubio are fighting over who has the resources to stay alive until Trump begins to fade -- if that ever happens.