Joe Hoeffel was unusually frank last week in telling potential supporters of his campaign for governor that he really, really needed to raise some campaign cash - in a hurry.

"My campaign has set a goal to raise $1,000,000 by December 31st," Hoeffel wrote in an e-mail blast to the thousands of people on his contact list.

Dec. 31 is the first mile marker for candidates to show how they are doing, money-wise, in what shapes up as next year's free-for-all governor's race, with Hoeffel, a Montgomery County commissioner, and four fellow Democrats on one side and three Republican candidates on the other side.

When the year-end financial figures become public Feb. 1, they will be used by donors and politicians alike to assess the electoral viability of the contenders who want to succeed Gov. Rendell.

A candidate might not need to be first, or even second, in the money race at this point. But he cannot be left too far behind.

In the last open-seat gubernatorial race, in 2002, a record $71 million was spent. No one is expecting such sums next year, partly because of the recession.

"A lot of traditional givers are really hurting in this economy and have either cut back or have stopped giving entirely," said lawyer Alan Kessler, a national Democratic fund-raiser. "And that will affect a lot of the candidates."

Among the Democrats, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, who has been raising money for a year, appears well ahead in donations. He is expected to report having raised $6 million or more, according to Kessler, a member of Onorato's fund-raising team.

Businessman Tom Knox, who spent $12 million of his own money in a 2007 run for mayor of Philadelphia, has said that he will spend "whatever it takes" to be competitive. He does not seem to have raised much money, but he might not need to.

Other Democrats are scrambling to remain in the game financially.

Hoeffel, a former U.S. representative, figures that $1 million, or close to it, will at least buy him a seat at the big table for the May 18 primary election.

"That's the goal we have," he said. "The buy-in, I think, is whether you are a credible candidate and can raise a base of supporters."

Most fund-raising events are small, sedate affairs.

But Hoeffel's e-mail blast invited every one of the thousands of people on his decades-long contact list to attend any of the several fund-raising parties he has set up for this week and next at taprooms in Philadelphia, Conshohocken, Allentown, and Pittsburgh.

State Auditor General Jack Wagner, who will raise money next week at a wine-tasting party in a Pittsburgh restaurant, said in an interview that he expected to raise between $1.2 million and $1.5 million by year's end.

Wagner is the only Democratic candidate for governor who has won statewide office. He has done it twice. No Democrat, except for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., has ever gotten more votes in Pennsylvania.

But many in political circles wonder why, with these advantages, he has not raised more money. The $1.2 million figure is more than some have expected he will raise by year's end.

"Nobody can tell what he is doing," said a prominent labor union leader who asked not to be named in order not to offend Wagner.

Democrat Chris Doherty, mayor of Scranton, said a few weeks ago that he had "commitments" for $1 million. But he has not said what he expects to raise.

Among Republicans, state Attorney General Tom Corbett - with the support of most of his party's leaders - seems to have raised the most money.

He said over the summer that he already had raised $1.5 million, but he hasn't said anything about money since then.

James C. Roddey, the Allegheny County GOP chairman, said he did not expect Corbett to report having as much money as Onorato by Dec. 31. But he predicted Corbett would be well ahead of his main primary foe - U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach of Chester County.

He said Corbett would report "in the range of $2 million."

Kori Walter, spokesman for Gerlach, declined to speculate on what Gerlach would report.

But he said the battle for money was quite heated.

"The reporting deadline is coming up, so everybody wants to make their numbers look good," he said. "We are confident that our numbers will show that we are a competitive campaign."

A third Republican, State Rep. Sam Rohrer of Berks County, entered the race only a few weeks ago.

With months to go before the primary in May and the general election in November, the money race is in its early stages.

Pennsylvania is one of the few states with no limit on gubernatorial contributions. It also has six major television markets, one of which - Philadelphia - is the fourth-most-expensive in the nation. That all makes for expensive campaigns.

Rendell, who defeated Casey in a heated primary before beating Republican Mike Fisher in 2002, set a record by raising and spending $42 million. He received at least 27 donations of $100,000 or more.

No one in Pennsylvania has ever had Rendell's ability to raise money. But many millions of dollars more have yet to be collected.

Fund-raising parties will be in high gear this weekend at the Pennsylvania Society gathering in New York, a century-old tradition in which people of both parties descend on the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel for a Saturday-night gala and a raft of side events.

Most candidates have fund-raising events in New York.

One that is drawing attention is not billed as a money event at all. It's a Thursday-night reception honoring Rendell at a private home in Manhattan.

Rendell has said he will stay neutral in the primary to choose his successor. But the party invitation notes that Onorato and Democratic U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter will be there, and it asks attendees to make contributions to their campaigns.

Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.