by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

The November 2008 presidential election is still more than 1½ years away, but 17 candidates are already seeking the Democratic or Republican nomination.

Anyone who hasn’t declared his candidacy risks not being taken seriously despite the fact that every candidate seems obligated to declare he or she is “in it to win it,” which is probably another way to say “I’m not Dennis Kucinich.”

Why do presidential candidates have to start their campaigns so early?

The issues voters will care about in November 2008 are not well defined, nor are the candidate’s positions on those issues. Granted, the Iraq war, the economy, health care and education will all be on our minds in November of ’08, but any one of these issues could change significantly in the coming year.

The reason for starting presidential campaigns so early is simple: money. The next president probably will have to raise more than $1 billion from private sources to win the White House in ’08. No candidate can afford to let a competitor take the lead in raising money. In politics, money follows money.

Whoever can establish an early lead in fundraising will have an easier time raising even more funds.

Though eight people seek the Democratic nomination, the enormous need for campaign funds means there are really only three serious contenders: Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama and John Edwards. There is a finite number of Democratic donors with a finite amount of money to be had in this race. These three candidates have secured the majority of the big donors, and it is a matter of time before the other candidates start to drop out.

Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa came to this conclusion in February and ended his race for the White House. “This process has become to a great extent about money, a lot of money,” Vilsack said at the time. “Money, and only money … is the reason we are leaving today.”

Think about this for a minute. In the 2008 election, we will not have the opportunity to even consider whether Vilsack’s ideas or initiatives would be good for America. Those are off the table because the governor couldn’t raise enough money to keep up with the top Democratic candidates. Is this really how we want to narrow the field of candidates? Selecting the candidates only on the basis of how much special interest money they can raise?

“Instead of competing on a level playing field for the votes of their fellow citizens, candidates will necessarily seek competitive advantage in huge fund-raising operations,” said Mary Wilson, president of the League of Women Voters. “To raise such large sums, candidates will expose themselves to the special interest influence that comes when lobbyists and other interested persons solicit, bundle and give to their campaigns.”

Last week, John and Elizabeth Edwards had to make the decision to continue their campaign for the White House despite the recurrence of Elizabeth’s cancer. The sad fact is that any break from raising money means the end of the campaign. Suspending a campaign is no longer an option. You either continue or end it. This is the type of decision that has to be made when money is the determining factor.

Running for president hasn’t always been this way. From 1976 to 2000, every president we elected funded his campaign through a system of public financing: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all participated in the federal system for publicly funding presidential elections.

This system worked well until the 2004 election, when the candidates who were “in it to win it” eschewed the public financing system because it had become underfunded and hadn’t keep up with changes in primary elections. Since then, all candidates have assumed public money would not be enough to compete with a privately financed opponent.

Congress is considering the Presidential Funding Act of 2007, which would provide a much-needed update to the funding system. Although it would not have any impact on the presidential race in 2008, the bill would make sure an option for public financing is available to candidates in the 2012 race for the White House.

It is one of the most important pieces of legislation Congress will consider this session. Its fate will determine whether big money or big ideas dominate the 2012 presidential elections. If it doesn’t pass, get ready for the 2012 “in it to win it” candidates to start asking for money in 2009.