May 7, 2011- The vaunted Republican network of high-dollar donors and fund-raisers, for so long a fear factor for Democrats, has been slow to commit itself to the 2012 presidential candidates, contributing to the faltering start of the party’s drive to unseat President Obama.
So far, only former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts has assembled a strong bench of the top Republican financiers. Scores of other fund-raisers remain unaligned, waiting with their money — and contact lists — in their pockets as prospective candidates bombard them with phone calls, e-mails and in-person visits around the nation.
“It’s not at the top of the agenda for most folks right now,” said Brian Ballard, the Florida finance chairman for Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, who has heard from all of the potential hopefuls this year but, like many of his associates, has yet to choose a 2012 candidate.
A result is the chicken-egg dynamic that is delaying the party’s urgent need to begin raising money to defeat an incumbent president whose fund-raising goals are as high as $1 billion. Potential candidates have been slow to get into the race without the assurance that they can raise the money necessary for a credible campaign, while donors are waiting to see how the field develops before making decisions.
Many prospective candidates “want to have more tangible evidence that the support will be there if they start out,” said Al Cardenas, a former Florida Republican Party chairman who now leads the American Conservative Union. “Then there are the donors who don’t yet have a candidate — they’re being more cautious to say, ‘You know what, I’m waiting it out to see what the whole field looks like.’ ”
The early stages of any presidential campaign involve an intense competition, waged largely out of public view, for the allegiance of a core group of fund-raisers — the “bundlers” who pledge to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars on a candidate’s behalf from business associates, political allies, friends and neighbors. Under President George W. Bush, the Republicans built a network of hundreds of well-connected and energetic bundlers, a good portion of whom went on to help Mr. McCain in 2008.
Mr. Romney has won the support of some of the highest profile Republican bundlers. They include Mel Sembler, a Florida developer; Wayne Berman, a Washington lobbyist; and Lewis M. Eisenberg, a New York financier who said Mr. Romney was winning over donors by emphasizing that his focus would be “spurring the economy, creating jobs and tackling the deficit.”
The difficulties of lining up bundlers appear to be complicating progress for some other likely candidates. But at the same time, the situation has given newcomers, latecomers and lesser-known candidates more time and opportunity to gauge their chances.
At this point in the race four years ago, the top tier of Republican candidates had already raised more than $50 million among them. By the end of the first quarter this year, only one major contender, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, had even opened an exploratory committee to raise money. (The first meaningful fund-raising totals will not become public until July.)
The difficult fund-raising environment has tested even the most connected of potential candidates.
Several friends and associates of Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi said that before he decided against running for the nomination, even he — a onetime lobbyist, Republican Party chairman and Republican Governors Association chief — faced a difficult task raising money for himself in the maximum $2,500 increments allowed by campaign law. (None suggested that was why he did not run, and even rivals had predicted that he would have been one of the better-financed candidates nonetheless.)
Mr. Pawlenty, who has been among the most active likely candidates on the fund-raising circuit, said that it had been arduous but that the large number of uncommitted donors presented an opportunity for first-time candidates like himself.