Texas Gov. Rick Perry has leapt to the front of the Republican presidential race with fiery remarks aimed squarely at the party’s conservative base, calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and labeling President Obama “an abject liar” and a “socialist.”
But behind the scenes in meetings with wealthy donors, Perry has struck a far more measured tone, according to participants in several recent events. He emphasizes his ability to appeal to independents, Latinos and other voters necessary to win the White House and notes that he has complimented Obama for actions he considers favorable, such as killing Osama bin Laden.
As he rushes to catch up with GOP rival Mitt Romney in raising money — including several events in Manhattan this week — Perry is attempting to strike a delicate balance between his appeal to tea party voters and the need to attract donations from wealthy, often less conservative, benefactors. Romney’s fundraising, totaling more than $18 million so far, relies heavily on the kind of Wall Street and corporate funders who remain nervous that Perry’s swaggering style could keep him from beating Obama.
Perry’s argument, insiders say, is that his conservative bona fides will inspire voters in the party’s base while allowing him to court centrists. “Nobody is going to outflank me on the right,” Perry said at a recent gathering, according to one participant, who like many others discussed details of private events on the condition of anonymity.
Even some Perry supporters acknowledge that potential donors remain wary. “There are definitely people who want to see more fleshing out of the governor’s statements,” said Bill Diamond, a veteran party donor who was scheduled to hold a fundraiser for Perry on Wednesday in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Romney supporters say lingering doubts among GOP donors will limit the Texas governor’s ability to compete. Brian Ballard, a longtime party fundraiser who is backing Romney, said the message in meetings with donors is a simple one: electability.
“It’s what we need to win the election, and Governor Romney is clearly the best person to do that,” Ballard said. “You know what you’ve got. He looks and comes across as presidential.”
The need to catch up financially with Romney has turned much of the first month of Perry’s candidacy into a dollar chase. Drawing on his longtime ties to the energy and banking sectors, Perry has scheduled dozens of fundraisers from California to Texas to Virginia, hosted by supporters pledging to raise $10,000 or more for his campaign.
Major donors said in interviews that Perry expects to easily raise $10 million to $15 million by the end of this month, with a long-term goal of at least $45 million by the end of the first major primaries in March.
If he succeeds, Perry should be competitive with Romney, though it remains unclear how close, if he won the nomination, he could get to Obama’s fundraising total. The president reported raising more than $86 million for his campaign and the Democratic National Committee through June, putting him far ahead of the Republican field.
As governor, Perry has raised $102 million under Texas’s unlimited contribution system while also helping to raise tens of millions more for the Republican Governors Association. One top donor estimated that Perry has lined up at least 400 major campaign finance “bundlers” who will raise $50,000 or more for his presidential bid; Obama reported slightly fewer than 300 bundlers in July.
“You have somebody who has a strong fundraising base. Texas is a big state and a Republican state, and there’s a lot of money there,” said Kirk Blalock, a Washington lobbyist who will co-host a Perry fundraiser at the Willard Hotel in the District this month. “He can raise enough money to be competitive where he needs to be competitive.”
Perry’s effort at wooing big donors started in the summer, well before he announced his intention to run. During a meeting at a country club near Austin with 40 major donors, many of whom had been major backers of George W. Bush, top Perry strategists laid out the campaign’s plans, according to a donor in attendance.
The presentation was detailed: Perry aides predicted the counties in Texas where they would raise the most money. They suggested they would need to raise $45 million by March 1 to compete in the early primaries.
After the strategists’ meeting, the donors met Perry. As he has done at other events, he joked that his wife had pushed him to run and emphasized his undefeated electoral record in Texas. He also talked in detail about his success among Latino voters, a participant said.
Henry Barbour, a Perry fundraiser and nephew of Mississippi’s Republican governor, Haley Barbour, said Perry’s entry into the race “moved some people to get off the fence,” but he acknowledged that others are waiting.
“There are still some people who want to see him get out and campaign for a month or two,” said Barbour, a lobbyist and active GOP fundraiser. “He doesn’t have to raise as much money as Mr. Romney, but he has to be in the ballpark, and I’m confident he will be.”
One major California donor who has been courted by both men but remains undecided said his meetings with the two demonstrate the quandary for the party.
“Romney is very knowledgeable about a range of issues, but a little stiff, not relaxed,” the donor said, referring to a private meeting he had with Romney, “and that might hurt him in appealing to voters.”
The donor, who characterizes himself as a moderate, said “there aren’t a lot of things I like” with Perry on policy. But, he added, “you leave with the feeling this guy really knows what he wants to do.”
Perry’s fundraising pace has been hectic, often featuring several private donor events for every public stop. In California, one nighttime meeting with potential donors was held on the run at an aviation terminal in San Diego, shortly after the presidential debate in Simi Valley.
At that first debate, Perry electrified the GOP race with his incendiary rhetoric, calling Social Security a “monstrous lie” and castigating Obama in stark terms. But the next day, at a fundraising dinner hosted by a Los Angeles real estate broker, Perry emphasized his appeal to moderates and his undefeated history in Texas elections, according to a participant.
The frantic schedule continues in coming weeks with major Perry events in California, Florida and the District. Perry has signed up four dozen top fundraisers in the Sunshine State, which will host another debate Thursday.
In Washington, Perry will hold two fundraisers on Sept. 27, one at the Willard and the other at the home of auto dealer Mandell Ourisman and his wife, Mary, a former ambassador to Barbados. More than 40 co-hosts are listed on invitations to the two events, with donations starting at $1,000.
Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, who is helping coordinate fundraising for Perry in the nation’s capital, said there is “great enthusiasm” for his candidacy here despite his roots in the West.
“Obviously the East Coast is a different part of the country, and culturally Romney is from this part of the world and Perry is not,” Van Dongen said. “But I think the governor is being warmly received by a very large number of people. What we need is a crisp and clear and definitive contrast in the general election, and Governor Perry provides that.”