PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Even before being deemed qualified to run, presidential hopefuls in impoverished Haiti faced a hefty bill: a $12,500 nonrefundable filing fee.

Now they are finding that the amount will only get steeper as the campaign season begins to sizzle this month.

With 19 candidates vying for one of the toughest and least compensated top jobs in the hemisphere — it pays just $6,000 per month — the presidential race is likely to be one of the most expensive in Haitian history for candidates.

A serious candidate will need $10 million to $20 million if they want to get their message out, said Frantz Charlot, the owner of a visual advertising firm in Petionville, who is designing $300,000 billboard packages for candidates.

“Since the campaign is so tight, and so many of the candidates are fighting for the same voters, the candidates that can hammer their message the most will eventually prevail,” Charlot said.

In the 2006 presidential race, which saw Haitian President Rene Preval beat out 34 other candidates, experts speculated that a candidate needed between $3 million and $6 million to mount a strong challenge.

Political analysts say the $10 million to $20 million that top candidates will spend is still less than what most presidential candidates spend in the hemisphere.

The costs to the Haitian government and donors to hold the Nov. 28 election is estimated at $29 million. The government will fund $7 million with the rest coming from the international community.

Experts said the presidential and legislative elections could very well be the economic stimulus quake-ravaged Haitians have been awaiting since the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake left an estimated 300,000 dead and wiped-out jobs. The campaigns are expected to hire tens of thousands of Haitians.

“It’s like a cash transfer to the population, a sort of cash-for-work program,” said Leslie Voltaire, a former government minister who plans to hire 10,000 Election Day monitors and a helicopter to get around Haiti’s mountainous terrain.

Even Voltaire, who estimates he will need between $6 million and $8 million and who spent three days in South Florida recently stumping for diaspora cash, said costs are “outrageous.”

“But you have people willing to subsidize it,” he said.

Most everyone agrees that while presidential candidates will get some money from local business leaders, it is unknown just how much, given the number of strong contenders among the candidates on the ballot.

Among them: two-time former Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis, considered the front-runner, until President Rene Preval picked former government construction company head Jude Celestin as his political platform’s choice.

Then there are:

Voltaire, the Cornell-educated urban planner involved in reconstruction planning.

Jean-Henry Ceant, a powerful notary who is reportedly receiving support both from followers of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the very middle class that forced him from office.

Former first lady and university professor Mirlande Manigat.

Businessman Charles Henri Baker. Baker, who lost to Preval in 2006, received an average of $50,000 from 400 supporters mostly in the business community then.

But that tiny business community is now a shadow of its already frail financial self, which has some wondering how much it will be able to contribute. Also unknown is how much the government will officially contribute to the campaigns.

Haiti was already expensive before the quake punched a hole in the economy and government coffers. Now it’s even more so as demand outpaces supply, and the price of everything from SUVs to banners to T-shirts has skyrocketed.

A recently prepared bare-bones budget for minimal visibility by one campaign showed that after the $1,000 full-page ad in a local newspaper, $3,000 30-second prime time radio spot and $32.50/dozen T-shirts and assorted posters, costs already totaled $1 million. And the amount didn’t even include rental cars or purchases.

But transportation is not the only major cost if candidates want a shot at winning, said Sen. Joseph Lambert, the INITE campaign’s national coordinator and former president of the Haitian Senate, who noted that the campaign plans to hire 30,000 Election Day monitors at $20 a person. There is the cost of providing electricity and food at campaign rallies, now scheduled to begin in mid-October.

“The people are hungry. You can’t just invite them to come to a meeting and not feed them,” he said. “This is extremely expensive.”

Lambert said INITE plans to fund its candidates by raising money in the private sector but declined to say how much the campaign will cost. He did say that he and other senators will be watching closely to ensure that ministries’ funds are not used to fund opponents’ bid, a common practice.