The campaign contribution scramble: Will Mitt Romney keep GOP lead?

Only a few days are left until third-quarter fundraising reports are due. Mitt Romney led the GOP field last quarter, but Rick Perry, Ron Paul, and others are sprinting hard for campaign contributions.

Carlos Osorio/AP
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, arrive at the Republican Leadership Conference at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Mich., Saturday.

Bipartisanship may be in short supply these days, but here’s one point of agreement: The third quarter of 2011 ends on Friday night, and all the presidential candidates – including President Obama – are sprinting to raise as much cash as possible before then.

Each candidate faces his or her own expectations. For Mr. Obama, who faces no serious opposition for the Democratic nomination, it’s all about stuffing intimidating quantities of cash into the general election coffers. He aims to outdo his total from the 2008 race – a record $750 million – and he still appears to be on track. But with a down economy and some of his former donors leaving him, it’s not clear that he can reach $1 billion.

On the Republican side, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's fundraising numbers will provide a clue as to his strength as a candidate, after three weak debate performances and two second-place finishes in straw polls. Governor Perry entered the GOP nomination race on Aug. 13, so he’s still playing catch-up. But as governor, he was great at raising money. The question is whether he can make inroads into the fundraising lead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

“Perry doesn’t have to beat Romney” in third-quarter fundraising, says Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. “But he needs a boost. He needs to come in with a number that’s eye-popping.”

Perry’s campaign has set a $10 million target for the quarter, after knocking down reports that he’d raised $20 million in just his first few events. Analysts expect him to come in at more than $10 million, but it’s clear he would have done better if his debate performances had been stronger. According to news reports, some potential Perry donors are sitting on their hands and waiting to see if the governor can recover in the next debate Oct. 11.

Perry is also limited by a Securities and Exchange Commission rule that bars campaign contributions from firms that are handling his state’s public pension funds. That is hindering his ability to fundraise on Wall Street. At the same time, Mr. Romney is poaching former Obama donors on Wall Street. So far, Romney has raised more than twice as much Wall Street money as Obama – $2.3 million versus $857,000 – according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics compiled by Bloomberg.

Romney, still trailing Perry in the polls, raised $18.3 million in the second quarter of 2011 – more than all the other Republican candidates combined. But reports indicate he will not reach that total in the third quarter. Typically, the quarter following the first big round of fundraising is difficult, as the “low-hanging fruit” has already been plucked and sure-thing donors have reached the maximum.

Ron Paul, who came in second among GOP candidates after Romney for the second quarter, continues to raise money in day-long bursts called “money bombs.” The libertarian-leaning Texas congressman’s loyal supporters are expected to keep his campaign well-fueled for the duration of the campaign. A Paul campaign official says “ballpark $5 million” for the third quarter.

For the other candidates, the third-quarter numbers could be make or break in terms of ability to stay in the campaign. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota failed to capitalize on her victory in the Iowa straw poll last month, and is reportedly having fundraising trouble. Her last-place finish in the Florida straw poll last weekend does nothing to boost her chances.

Businessman Herman Cain, on the other hand, posted a stunning victory in the Florida straw poll, and his communications director, Ellen Carmichael, says the campaign continues to raise “several hundred thousand a day” after the Saturday win. Overall, the Cain campaign isn’t putting out a guesstimate for its third-quarter fundraising total.

Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, has won some attention for his combative debate style, but he remains low in the polls and is reportedly struggling in fundraising. The question for him is how long he can stay in the race, even with his small staff and low overhead.

Jon Huntsman Jr., the former governor of Utah, has continued to underwhelm in his debate performances, and his longevity in this campaign also has a big question mark over it. His low polling numbers have also likely hindered fundraising, and it’s anybody’s guess how much he’ll report for the third quarter.

Another mystery man on funding is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He continues to poll remarkably well, given his minimal campaign. The latest national poll, by CNN/Opinion Research, shows Mr. Gingrich in third place with 10 percent, after Perry (28 percent) and Romney (21 percent). The Real Clear Politics average of recent polls shows him in sixth place with 7 percent, trailing (in order) Perry, Romney, Congressman Paul, noncandidate former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and Mr. Cain.

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