Romney already raising big bucks

BOSTON -- Republican Mitt Romney, who surprised his presidential rivals last month with his one-day, $6.5 million haul, chased more cash Thursday as candidates faced the reality that dollars distinguish the legitimate hopefuls from the pretenders.

Romney capped his three-day announcement tour with a $1,000-per-person fundraiser at Boston's new convention center, part of a frenetic money dash. On Tuesday alone, he raced from Dearborn, Mich., site of his campaign kickoff, to Iowa and then back to Dearborn for an event organizers hoped would raise $400,000.

Early presidential polling shows Romney, a venture capitalist who served just one term as Massachusetts governor, trailing better-known rivals Sen. John McCain and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.

The aggressive fundraising -- Romney may spend up to a third of his time collecting checks before March 31 -- could buy him name recognition and perhaps some early advertising. March 31 is the first filing deadline for presidential candidates.

"The big thing early on is it's the way people keep score," said Donald Evans, the former Commerce secretary who led President Bush's 2000 campaign fundraising committee, which raised more than $100 million. "It gets you more name ID, you come across as a winner -- and people like to be with a winner."

The Romney campaign has been weighing whether to go on the air soon in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

"Those decisions haven't been made, but that's what you raise the assets for: building the grass-roots organization and funding the communications effort," said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for the Romney campaign.

Money doesn't guarantee success in politics, but it can certainly help the lesser-known candidates.

In 1996, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm won the early fundraising sweepstakes with an eye-catching campaign account of $20 million -- and then ceded the Republican nomination to Bob Dole the weekend before the New Hampshire primary.

Strong early fundraising validated the candidacy of a little-known former governor from Vermont in 2003. Democrat Howard Dean collected tens of thousands of small-dollar donations through the Internet on his way to more than $40 million, a Democratic Party record.

Dean stumbled in Iowa, finishing third, and Sen. John Kerry eventually captured the party's nomination.

Romney faces more seasoned politicians capable of raising plenty of cash.

McCain raised $1.7 million during the first few weeks of his campaign based on year-end finance reports. Since then, the Arizona senator has made his own fundraising push. Giuliani reported raising $1.4 million in his year-end report, although he was expected to undertake a major fund-raising drive.

On Thursday, Giuliani announced he had picked up the support of three of Massachusetts' five Republican senators, Richard Tisei of Wakefield, Bruce Tarr of Gloucester and Michael Knapik of Westfield. Romney responded with a statement detailing his support among other Republican officeholders in the state, from sheriffs to mayors.

Presidential fundraising is made all the more challenging by campaign finance laws, which limit the amount an individual can contribute to $2,300 for the primary campaign.

"Anyone can get a few people to write big checks, but the question is, can you get thousands to write smaller checks?" Evans said. "So, with you putting a serious number on the board, that shows you have some widespread support."

Several national polls show Giuliani leading the GOP field, McCain second and Romney third. A recent CNN/WMUR poll of likely New Hampshire primary voters had the race in a statistical dead heat, with McCain at 28 percent, Giuliani at 27 percent and Romney with 13 percent.

"A lot of other folks in the race enjoy 100 percent name ID right now. Governor Romney is not terribly well known to folks outside his home state, and the introduction of him elsewhere will require a lot of resources from us," Madden said.

Romney, who headed Salt Lake City's 2002 Olympic organizing committee, is tapping an array of networks to finance his fledgling campaign, from business to religion.

On Jan. 9, during his "National Call Day" in Boston, among those helping him raise the $6.5 million were Meg Whitman, a former Bain & Co., colleague who is now president and CEO of eBay, and Al Cardenas, the former chairman of the Florida Republican Party.

Romney, who would be the first Mormon president, is also tapping fellow members of his faith. However, leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints warned against involving their organization in a political campaign after Romney supporters admitted they were seeking support among alumni networks from Brigham Young University, a heavily Mormon school.

During his first month, Romney raised $1.4 million through the Internet, plus an unspecified sum from traditional fundraising. His campaign also has spent more than $50,000 establishing a system that allows big-ticket donors and regular supporters to tap their professional and social networks for additional donations.