Mitt Romney remains fundraising king, but look who's hard on his heels

Mitt Romney was both the big fundraiser and the big spender in January, in his quest for GOP's presidential crown. Despite his big war chest, he lags Rick Santorum by 10 points nationally.

Gerald Herbert/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to employees at Meridian Bioscience in Cincinnati, Ohio, Monday, Feb. 20.

Mitt Romney raised more money ($6.5 million) and spent more money ($19 million) in January than any of the other Republican presidential contenders. By the end of the month, he had won two of four contests. Yet three weeks into February – and two weeks after Rick Santorum trounced him in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri – Mr. Romney's campaign appears on the edge of crisis.

Romney now trails Mr. Santorum among Republican voters nationally by 10 points, 36 percent to 26 percent, according the latest Gallup daily tracking poll, released Tuesday morning. In his native state of Michigan, which holds its primary in a week, Romney trails Santorum by an average of three points in the latest polls.

Romney is leading in Arizona, the other Feb. 28 primary. A win there would ease the blow of a Michigan loss. But if he loses both, watch out. Talk of a brokered or contested convention and the search for a GOP “savior” to get into the race – all still idle chatter – could burst forth into full-blown panic by the Republican establishment.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If anything, the race for cash has shown that money isn’t everything in politics. All a candidate needs is enough – not necessarily the most – to be competitive.

In the January fundraising figures, due Monday night, Romney did come in first, but not by much. Newt Gingrich, who posted a big victory in the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21, took in $5.6 million, and Santorum took in $4.5 million. Ron Paul, who commands fierce loyalty among his supporters, also took in $4.5 million.

Almost as important are the fundraising numbers for "super political action committees" – the new outside groups that can raise unlimited donations for ads in support of a campaign. The pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, brought in slightly more than Romney himself, $6.6 million, and spent $14 million. The pro-Gingrich super PAC, Winning Our Future, took in $11 million – mostly from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife – and spent $9.7 million. The pro-Santorum super PAC, the Red White and Blue Fund, took in $2 million and spent $1.5 million.

Theintense super-PAC spending against Romney is what dented him in South Carolina and helped propel Gingrich into his biggest victory of the cycle so far. Santorum doesn’t have an Adelson-level sugar daddy, but for a live-off-the-land campaign, every bit helps.

Despite Romney's problems, he and his super PAC had the biggest financial cushion by January’s end: The Romney campaign had $7.7 million in cash on hand, and the pro-Romney super PAC had $16 million cash on hand. Neither had any debt, and there’s no indication that Romney has opened up his own substantial checkbook, in contrast with his effort four years ago.

Santorum had $1.5 million cash on hand and nearly $1 million in debt on Jan. 31. Gingrich had nearly $1.8 million cash on hand and $1.7 million in debt. Congressman Paul had $1.6 million cash on hand and no debt.

So Romney is still the best-positioned Republican, financially. But those numbers don’t reflect the fundraising boon to Santorum after his trifecta of Feb. 7. He says he brought in more than $1 million on each of the two days after that surprise sweep.

The biggest winner of all is President Obama. Had the Republicans closed out their nomination race early – presumably with Romney – that would have allowed the party to focus solely on defeating Mr. Obama in November. Instead, the Republicans have a circular firing squad. And Obama is financially comfortable with a $76 million war chest and only a little more than $1 million in debt as of the end of January. 

In January, the Obama campaign raised $11.8 million. The pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action, raised only $59,000 in January – but that was before the president flip-flopped and embraced the group. Now that he supports donations to Priorities – while still opposing, in theory, the existence of such outside groups – the test begins: How will Democrats fare in the brave new world of limitless donations to super PACs? The next reports to the Federal Election Commission will tell the story. 

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