Monday, March 3, 2008 | Every day in the 15 weeks running up to the June 3 primary, images of mayoral candidate Steve Francis will flash across San Diego County’s television screens.

It’s been touted as the most extravagant campaign investment in local television history.

But you won’t see Sanders, the sitting mayor who carries considerable institutional support, starring in his own television ad for quite a while. The rosiest scenarios put out by the Sanders campaign put him on television perhaps three weeks before the June primary.

The reason: his campaign budget.

Sanders doesn’t have Francis’ personal wealth and, therefore, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a month in airtime alone in February never was an option. It’s one disadvantage that was a given when Francis made it clear he’d run again.

However, with the campaign beginning to take shape, a number of people who run political campaigns for a living say Sanders has a money problem — and it’s not just that he’s going up against a well-heeled businessman. It’s that he hasn’t raised as much money as they thought he would’ve by now.

Tom Shepard, Sanders’ campaign consultant, said raising money is expensive and time-consuming considering San Diego’s $320 limit on individual contributions. (Los Angeles’ limit, for example, is $1,000.) This time around, he said, Sanders can’t spend the time rousing up cash that he did in 2005 because now he has a daily job to do at City Hall. While Sanders held a fundraiser a day during the 2005 special election, now he does about four a month, according to Shepard.

“That said, given the current state of the economy, we’re doing as good as could be expected. I’m not disturbed by where we are compared to where we were last time,” Shepard said.

As of the most recent campaign filing deadline, Sanders reported raising $342,926 in the last six months of 2007. Of that, he had $127,819 left in the bank at the end of 2007.

“I was really shocked that he had such little cash on hand,” said Larry Remer, a political consultant not involved in the race.

Remer, who primarily works Democratic campaigns, said he expected Sanders would’ve raised $500,000 and had $300,000 on hand at this point. Both Sanders and Francis are Republicans; other Republican operatives expressed sentiments similar to Remer’s, saying that Sanders would likely need to raise more than $1 million for the campaign.

Sanders continues to be popular. It’s considered his race to lose. But whether the race is a competitive one could come down to one factor: Just how wide Francis cracks open that famous wallet of his.

When they squared off in the 2005 special election, Francis spent more than $2 million of his own money in the eight-week campaign. The money — and the television ads it purchased — hoisted Francis up from being a no-name to serious contender, giving Sanders a close call in the battle for second place in the primary campaign. Sanders finished with 27 percent compared to Francis’ 23.5 percent.

Sanders grabbed second and went on to beat Democratic Councilwoman Donna Frye in a runoff. In that campaign, Sanders more than doubled Frye’s fund-raising efforts, corralling $1.2 million to $487,000.

How many millions Francis will spend on this election continues to be a hot topic, but the candidate isn’t disclosing his presumed budget. He’s sworn off fundraising and can inject steady flows of his own cash as he sees fit as June 3 approaches.

So far, Francis’ ad buy has been the only event to stir up any palpable buzz in the young campaign.

Sanders almost certainly won’t go it alone. The mayor will likely receive a boost from outside sources that aren’t restricted by San Diego’s rigorous individual campaign limits. Outside groups such as political parties and business groups can receive unlimited donations and spend them on communicating directly with their members, though not through television or radio.

That would allow, for example, the Republican Party, which endorsed the mayor, to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on behalf of Sanders sending mailers to its members. That frees Sanders up to spend his direct campaign cash on messages out to the general public.

In addition to the Republican Party, Sanders has the support of such electoral big-spenders as the Lincoln Club, a conservative business group, and the building and tourism industries.

The mayor, just for being mayor, also gets plenty of free airtime. Just last week, for example, he called press conferences and the crew of television cameras that come with them on Monday (report on wildfires), Tuesday (the border crossing remodeling), Wednesday (police recruitment), Thursday (clean-water studies) and Friday (new personal digital assistants for cops).

They were all labeled as official City Hall business, not campaign stops, but they got the man’s mug on the tube nonetheless. Indeed, the Sanders administration has mastered the art of free media in its two-plus years in office, earning notoriety for the sheer number of press conferences it holds.

And there’s one more potential helper out there. The mayor’s supporters formed a campaign committee, San Diegans for City Hall Reform, ahead of the 2006 election to promote two propositions the mayor was pushing on pensions and privatization.

Since then, the committee has remained open, collecting contributions ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 from oil, real estate and defense interests and the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.

The group of Sanders supporters has threatened to launch its own ballot initiative if the City Council doesn’t place certain proposals for amendments to the city charter, leading some of Sanders political opponents to suppose that the committee will spend its cash promoting Sanders’ preferred charter changes — and Sanders in the process.

Shepard said the city’s strict fundraising limits will make it impossible to compete with the millions — he estimated $4 million or $5 million — that Francis will spend. He said the Sanders campaign is doing as well as anyone has in a primary race, and that it will begin running radio and Internet ads this week.

A third contender, former Democratic Councilman Floyd Morrow, recently jumped into the race and hasn’t yet filed campaign disclosures.

John Kern, the political consultant behind former Mayor Dick Murphy’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns, downplays the importance of cash in this contest.

“You don’t need the most money, you just need enough money,” he said.

Please contact Andrew Donohue directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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