For those with their eye on this year's city council races, January 31 has been circled in red—it's the deadline for candidates who must get enough $5 contributions to secure public financing. As we went to press on January 29, the five participating candidates aiming for Commissioner Sam Adams' vacated seat looked likely to qualify (one candidate, Amanda Fritz, has already made the cut, while a sixth candidate in that race, Mike Fahey, isn't participating and has been laying low.)

The public cash puts candidates on equal funding footing, turning this open seat race into a true contest of ideas. Compare that to the last open city races, in 2004, where money was a big focus: Jim Francesconi raised over a million bucks in his mayoral bid, while Tom Potter famously capped his contributions and raised less than a quarter of that. For that year's council race, Adams and Nick Fish were both busy raising around $600,000 each. Stories about fundraising were given equal billing against stories about where, politically, the candidates stood.

That won't be the case this time. These candidates will be evaluated based on what they'd bring to the city council, not on who's paying their way. (Speaking of which: Check out, where candidates are answering questions about the issues almost every day.)

But this publicly financed, history-making race isn't what has everyone's attention. Two campaign newbies have taken over the spotlight in the past few weeks. On January 7, Sho Dozono launched a contribution drive in his quest to become mayor. And Jim Middaugh—Commissioner Erik Sten's chief of staff—jumped in on January 14, hoping to win his boss' newly vacated seat. Both aimed for public financing, a seemingly Sisyphean task given the truncated timeline.

However, both blew away all previous records. Dozono turned in 2,400 signatures on January 24, and Middaugh turned in 1,682 on January 28—hundreds more than either candidate needed, gathered at a pace of over 120 contributions a day. (Middaugh's success in particular might keep other potential candidates out of that race—the remarkable accomplishment vaults him into a tight competition with local attorney Nick Fish.)

The question for both of those candidates, however, is what happens next. Faced with a tangible task and deadline—go out and collect $5 from people, now—volunteers are sharply focused. It's unclear, however, if that energy is sustainable enough to propel Dozono and Middaugh—two novice candidates facing privately financed candidates who've run before—through May's primary. Stay tuned.