NEW YORK — Mitt Romney is organizing a phone bank fundraiser in Las Vegas next month. Tim Pawlenty is holding regular "friendraising" meetings in big-money California and elsewhere. Haley Barbour hunkers down soon with finance operatives in cash-rich New York and other lucrative places.
Republican presidential hopefuls are in the midst of a fundraising frenzy as they seek to raise mounds of campaign cash and assemble influential donor networks. With the 2012 campaign starting several months later than it did four years ago, the contenders are under intense pressure to demonstrate their ability to bring in the dough before the slower summer season begins.
"Money is hardly the only indication of a candidate's potential, but it's an important indication," said Lew Eisenberg, a top Romney fundraiser who was finance chairman for Arizona Sen. John McCain, the party's 2008 nominee.
For now, the field is eschewing wall-to-wall public appearances with campaign speeches and interaction with voters. Instead, they're scurrying between private meetings and dialing phone lists to persuade donors to come aboard in hopes of meeting closely kept fundraising goals for the three-month period that ends June 30.
They're trying to prove that they are savvy money collectors and ready to challenge President Barack Obama, a record-breaking fundraiser who could raise as much as $1 billion. They also need to raise enough money to pay for full-fledged campaigns in early voting states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
Beyond that, each contender has other objectives:
—Romney, the multimillionaire former Massachusetts governor, raised $63 million and kicked in $44 million of his own money before dropping out of the primary race in 2008. He's hoping to use his fundraising prowess to lay down a marker that he's the candidate to beat in a field that lacks a true front-runner.
—Barbour, Mississippi's governor, an ex-lobbyist and a former Republican National Committee chairman, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has an enormous e-mail list through his American Solutions organization, are trying to show they can move swiftly to mobilize their existing network of backers.
—Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor and a newcomer to national politics, simply is trying to demonstrate that he can compete in their league.
—The same could be said for Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. She's a proven fundraiser as a House candidate and is a favorite among tea party backers but hasn't run nationally. Santorum isn't well known around the country and hasn't held office since losing his seat in 2006.
None will disclose his or her fundraising goals. Doing so would raise expectations that they may not be able to meet.
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Of those who have taken initial steps toward formal campaigns, Romney arguably has moved the quickest. He's secured pledges from top supporters to raise as much as $25,000 apiece. He's been meeting potential donors individually and in small groups, leading up to a major "phone day" event May 16. That's when he and his supporters plan to gather in Las Vegas to raise money and recruit new contributors. After that, aides say Romney will launch a heavy schedule of fundraising events.
"He's working. He's moving every day, investing the time," Eisenberg said.
Pawlenty has been introducing himself to the Republican finance crowd at meetings that his aides describe as "friendraisers." Some big supporters of both McCain and former President George W. Bush have agreed to join Pawlenty's team. His aides say he's made inroads in Texas, fertile fundraising territory, and several veterans of past GOP presidential campaigns are hosting an event for him in Dallas on May 10.
"He's not in the front-runner position, so he'll have to make a lot more friends before raising money," said Phil Handy, a former Bush and McCain fundraiser in Florida now helping Pawlenty. "We have some ground to make up, but we feel good about it."
Barbour, who's expected to join the field as early as this coming week, has met with potential donors while traveling to early voting states. He has an extensive fundraising network from his political and lobbying careers but aides are playing down what he will raise in the April-June period. They say it will take some time for those contacts to bear fruit for Barbour.
Several potential contenders probably will be able to sidestep the scrutiny that will come when the three-month totals are reported in mid-July.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman won't return from China, where he is serving as U.S. ambassador, until the end of this month. He has been legally barred from making any significant campaign moves until then. He's expected to disclose in the coming weeks whether he will run. Expectations are high that he will. His personal wealth and links to the moneyed Mormon community could help his fundraising; his work in the Obama administration could hurt.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa caucuses but little else, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, are well-known national figures. Because of that, they may have an easier time raising cash than others if they decide to get in the race. Donald Trump, the real estate developer and reality show host, has said he will announce his plans in June.
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