The candidates are crisscrossing the country in a frenzied dash for cash ahead of March 31, the first big fundraising deadline.

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NEW YORK — A quarter of a million bucks a day. Every day.

That’s about what the top-tier presidential candidates are hoping to raise before the end of the month.

For all the chitchat in Iowa living rooms and striding of stages at New Hampshire rallies, the real campaigning right now is going on behind the scenes, where pols are begging rich people for money.

The candidates are crisscrossing the country in a frenzied dash for cash ahead of March 31, the first big fundraising deadline.

Rudy Giuliani, for example, is racing from California to Texas to Nevada with a fundraiser scheduled every day — sometimes two a day — for the rest of the month. The rest are on similar schedules.

Sen. Hillary Clinton was scheduled to host a New York dinner Sunday night that could raise $3 million in one go. Another one next week at Ron Burkle’s California estate, with added star power of Barbra Streisand, Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz, could bring in even more.

Hillary Clinton will be doing four and five fundraisers a day on many days, and Bill Clinton will head a team of surrogates fanning out across the country.

The money mania is being driven partly by the looming reality of an Ultra-Mega-Super Tuesday primary Feb. 5, when at least a dozen big states with pricey TV markets all will vote, requiring lavish financing just to compete.

But that’s not until next year. Right now, the cash dash is mostly about expectations: All the candidates are trying to turn in a huge fundraising number to boost their credibility and scare off rivals.

“The March 31 deadline will be the first big test for all of the presidential candidates,” Dennis Cheng, a fundraiser for Clinton told potential donors in an e-mail. “We need your help to ensure that Hillary has a strong and impressive showing.”

Money is everything in politics. Since 1984, the nominee of each party has been the candidate who raised the most money in the year before the election.

The conventional wisdom is that the leading candidates are aiming to raise as much as $30 million — a third of what experts say a successful candidate will have to amass by the end of the year.

Officially, Clinton’s camp says its target is $15 million. Officially, Sen. Barack Obama’s camp says it would be thrilled with $8 million.

Privately, they all admit it’s a bunch of hooey.

“Of course we’re going to do better than that,” said one campaign aide. “It’s a little ridiculous.”

The National Journal, a Washington insider’s tip sheet, predicted Clinton would rack up $25 million to $30 million, Obama $20 million and John Edwards $15 million.

On the GOP side, Mitt Romney is expected to have raised about $25 million, John McCain $20 million and Giuliani $15 million.

The game is all about minimizing your own prospects and raising expectations on your opponents to make your final total look amazing and theirs weak.

“It’s out of control,” said Sim Farar, a Clinton backer who is one of the Dems’ top rainmakers. “It shouldn’t be that way, but as long as those are the rules, we are going to play by them and play hard.”