The first story on the April 3 edition of NBC’s “Today” show was media manna for Mitt Romney. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported that the former Massachusetts governor had raised $20 million in the first quarter of 2007 to outpace rivals, calling it “the big surprise on the Republican side.”

“Romney,” she added, “is now the undisputed winner of the money primary.”

The next evening, Charlie Gibson led ABC’s nightly newscast by trumpeting the news on the Democratic side. Senator Barack Obama had collected $25 million to trail frontrunner Hillary Clinton by only $1 million. “Tonight, Barack Obama’s extraordinary fundraising windfall,” Gibson declared, “shattering expectations and shaking up the presidential race.”

Nine months before any citizen casts a vote, what was once called the “invisible” or media primary for the 2008 presidential race is well underway. Only now it is hardly invisible.

Last week’s first quarter fundraising statistics were not treated as a minor inside story about money, for instance, but as a major milestone for establishing frontrunners and expectations. Romney and Obama, by exceeding those expectations, were the big winners. McCain and Clinton were, by media calculations at least, the losers.

With dollars driving the narrative, the campaign was the second biggest story last week, filling 10% of the overall newshole for the week of April 1-6, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index.

This marked the 12th consecutive week the campaign has been one of the five biggest stories in the U.S. media. Since mid-January—when Obama announced his exploratory committee—the only subject that has generated more overall coverage is the debate over Iraq.

Whether a cause of the press coverage or a reflection of it, according to the Pew ResearchCenter for the People & the Press there is more public interest in this campaign than there had been in early stages of previous presidential races. (About half those surveyed in April were following the 2008 race “very” or “fairly closely” compared to 27% who said they were following the 2004 campaign closely in May 2003.)

The one story that topped the presidential campaign last week was the conflict with Iran, (13%), a subject fueled by the Iranian-British hostage crisis that was resolved with the release of the 15 captives on April 5. That was followed by the Iraq debate (9%), a topic fueled in part by the controversy over John McCain’s upbeat assessments of the security situation inside Iraq. Spurred by a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate emissions, global warming (5%) was the fourth biggest story.

One subject that virtually dropped off the media radar screen was the investigation into the eight fired U.S. attorneys that threatens Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. After being either the first or second biggest story for the three previous weeks, the topic plummeted to 1%. That despite the April 6 news that Monica Goodling—the top Gonzales aide who refused to testify in the probe—had resigned. There’s little doubt, though, that the story will resurface in a big way when Gonzales, his future at stake, testifies before a skeptical Congress on April 17.

PEJ’s News Coverage Index is a study of the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. (See a List of Outlets.) It is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. (See Our Methodology.)

The battle to succeed George Bush in 2008 was the top story on newspaper front pages last week (at 8% of that newshole), and finished second on network TV (at 12%), second on cable (15%) and third on radio (11%). Only online outlets, at 2%, did not give it major attention.

For as much coverage as the presidential race generated last week, there wasn’t much attention paid to the official entries of long shot Republicans Tom Tancredo and Tommy Thompson. With so many candidates in the race, journalists have focused largely on the marquee names. That primarily means Republicans McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and to a lesser degree Romney, and Democrats Obama and Clinton.

And of that group, the Democrats have thus far been the main attraction. Since the coverage accelerated in the middle of January, the Index reveals that the Democratic candidates—primarily Clinton and Obama—have been featured in roughly twice as many stories as the GOP hopefuls.

Clinton, in particular, has been a lightning rod/target for the talk hosts, particularly the conservative radio talkers. So it’s no surprise that in PEJ’s Talk Show Index, which monitors 12 radio and cable talk shows, the presidential race has been a top five topic for 10 straight weeks.

For the second week in a row, Iran and its capture of 15 British military prisoners was the top story overall, leading in online coverage (17%), on network TV (16%), on cable news (17%) and on radio (19%). The story gained momentum at the end of the week as the troops were returned home and then held a much-publicized press conference. (Update: After initially giving the former captives permission to sell their stories to the media, the British government reversed course and prohibited that practice.)

The subject of conflict with Iran has followed a sharply higher trajectory in the past few months. It emerged as the third biggest story in the week of February 11-16 after a U.S. briefing blamed the Iranians for supplying weapons killing American troops in Iraq. Since then, tensions with Iran have been the fifth biggest news story overall, according to the Index. Even though the hostage standoff pitted Britain (rather than the U.S.) directly against Iran, it is not likely to ease concerns about a future confrontation between Teheran and Washington.

With the Supreme Court’s emissions decision dealing the Bush administration’s environmental policy a major setback, global warming became a top-10 story for only the third time since the beginning of the year. It generated the most coverage, at 9%, on the network news shows.

The fifth biggest story (at 5%) was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip that included a controversial Damascus stop to talk with a Syrian government that the Bush administration has essentially been boycotting. That visit, criticized by the White House, filled 10% of the radio airtime, with a number of radio talkhosts taking the opportunity to chime in.

The tsunami that struck the Solomon Islands on April 2—killing several dozen and leaving thousands of people homeless—was the seventh biggest story at 2% However, in the online sector, which tends to offer the widest variety of international coverage, it was the second biggest story at 11%, behind only Iran-related hostilities.

While a natural disaster, a hostage crisis (or even a probe of the Justice Department) are episodic events that can attract major media attention before fading into history, intense ongoing coverage of the presidential campaign, even at this early date, appears to be a fact of life.

In the media primary, every day brings a crucial news development. It can be a McCain pronouncement on Iraq, a fundraising report, and of course, a new poll. On the April 3 edition of CNN’s “Situation Room,” guest host Suzanne Malveaux rolled out a new survey of New Hampshire voters.

The big news was a poll among Democrats indicating that between February and April, frontrunner Hillary Clinton fell to 27% from 35% and Jon Edwards moved up to 21% from 16%, just ahead of Obama (at 20%).

“Tonight, surprising news turns and tightening in the Democratic presidential race,” Malveaux declared. “Jon Edwards has narrowly squeezed into second place.”

New Hampshire voters are scheduled to go to the polls in 287 days.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: Due to a technical error, CNN's Monday daytime program was not included in this week's sample.