Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama says his campaign has raised $25 million in the first three months of this year, nearly matching the $26 million raised by Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. As VOA national correspondent Jim Malone reports from Washington, Obama's strong showing in campaign fundraising suggests a very competitive race for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination next year.

The Obama campaign said the $25 million in donations came from more than 100,000 people during the past three months, including nearly $7 million raised over the Internet.

The fundraising figure was released as Senator Obama brought his campaign to the early contest state of Iowa.

"We have by far the most donors of any campaign, so the overwhelming number of our donations oftentimes come in small increments of 25 and 50 dollars," Obama said.

Senator Obama nearly matched the $26 million raised by Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, which was announced earlier this week. Clinton continues to lead public-opinion polls among Democratic candidates and has been seen as the frontrunner for the party's presidential nomination.

Obama has been running second in the polls behind Senator Clinton. Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who has been running in third place, raised $14 million in the first quarter of this year. Edwards recently announced that his wife, Elizabeth, is battling a recurrence of cancer.

Obama has only been in the Senate for two years and is a relative newcomer on the national stage, but he has drawn large and enthusiastic crowds since he began his campaign in February.

Political experts say the surprisingly large fundraising total for Obama will boost his campaign and could raise doubts among some Democrats that Hillary Clinton has a lock as the party nominee next year.

On the Republican side, the big fundraiser was former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who raised $23 million. Romney is running a distant third in most polls behind former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Senator John McCain.

Giuliani has raised nearly $15 million this year and McCain raised $12.5 million.

Romney told NBC's Today program that his surprisingly large fundraising total should boost his campaign.

"In the states where I spend a lot of time like Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, Florida, South Carolina, people know me, they are warming to my message," he said. "And I am very heartened by the fact that I have received extraordinary contributions from all over the country, so it is a message that is connecting. People want to see change in Washington."

Former Republican Party strategist Matthew Dowd says political rivals and experts closely watch the amount of money the candidates are able to raise.

"If you do not exceed expectations, if you go below expectations, it is a huge problem," he said. "If you exceed expectations, it is a good day."

Never before has so much campaign money been raised so early in a presidential-election cycle.

Many states are holding their caucus and primary elections earlier in 2008, forcing candidates to spend money sooner on advertising and campaign staff.

"And this has resulted in the nominees having to face a much more compressed and a much more early primary election season, requiring them to raise money at a much faster rate," said Ross Baker Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Baker says the competition among the presidential contenders to raise money has become the first important test of the 2008 campaign.

"And now, in fact, the effort to raise money has become a kind of primary election in itself, in which the quarterly reports that campaigns give become a kind of financial referendum on how strong the campaigns are," he said.

By law, private citizens are limited to donations of $2,300 to a candidate for the primary elections and another $2,300 for the general presidential election.

The major candidates are raising so much money for 2008 that this may be the first presidential election that the major candidates turn down public matching funds to finance their campaigns.

Presidential candidates have taken advantage of the matching funds in every election since 1976, part of a 1974 campaign reform law designed to limit campaign spending and the influence of wealthy special interest donors in U.S. presidential elections.