Tim Pawlenty is heading back to Iowa this week. Newt Gingrich will deliver his first formal speech as a presidential candidate. Ron Paul was among the GOP hopefuls gathered in South Carolina for the first debate of the campaign, while others are testing the waters and weighing whether to run.
In the meantime, Mitt Romney has been quietly, steadily focused primarily on one thing: raising money.
The presumed Republican front-runner, who took a pass on the first party debate last Thursday, has spent his early weeks as an exploratory candidate soliciting pledges in hopes of amassing a war chest that would put him far ahead of his competitors, according to donors, advisers and others close to Romney’s team.
And much of that effort has been targeted at wealthy banking and corporate executives on Wall Street.
The strategy is aimed in part at taking advantage of Wall Street’s dramatic shift away from President Obama and other Democrats, who have angered many business leaders by passing new financial regulations and seeking to raise taxes on certain types of investment income. The approach also means that Romney probably would have far more money than any of his likely Republican primary challengers, none of whom has his deep connections to the financial world.
Romney easily beats other candidates, including Obama, in the proportion of money raised from the financial and banking industry, according to a Washington Post analysis of contribution data. During the 2010 cycle, $4 of every $10 in itemized donations to Romney’s main political action committee came from finance-related companies and their employees, for a total of $1.8 million, the data show.
The list of donors at Romney’s first presidential fundraiser, held April 12 at the Harvard Club of New York City, reads like a who’s who of the Wall Street elite, including Goldman Sachs bankers and independent financiers. Those attending the breakfast meeting included investment banker Lewis M. Eisenberg, who served as finance chairman for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, and hedge-fund king John Paulson, who shattered records in 2010 by earning $5 billion in a single year.
The contributions fit with an emerging strategy by the Romney campaign to focus its message on the candidate’s long business career, including his roles as co-founder of Bain Capital, one of the nation’s largest private-equity firms, and as head of the profitable 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. In announcing his exploratory committee last month, Romney said that “President Obama’s policies have failed” because of a lack of business experience.
“He and virtually all the people around him have never worked in the real economy,” the former Massachusetts governor said in a video message. “They just don’t know how jobs are created in the private sector. That’s where I spent my entire career.”
Another former Massachusetts governor, William Weld, who was host of the April 12 fundraiser, said Romney’s business background “comes across loud and clear when he meets with people in a fundraising context” and added: “He knows how to speak the language of people in the business community.”
But Romney’s connections to Wall Street also pose a clear political risk at a time when many Americans are recoiling at the record paydays in corporate boardrooms, made possible in part by taxpayer bailouts approved during the George W. Bush administration and continued under Obama.
Romney’s business experience — including his alleged role in forcing job losses at companies taken over by his Bain Capital fund — caused him political trouble in past campaigns, and Democrats have signaled an eagerness to revisit the topic. One senior Democratic Party official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Romney’s “love affair with Wall Street” will be a key point of attack by the Obama campaign if he wins the GOP nomination.
Although Romney has always been close to the financial industry, his reliance on the sector has surged since he ran for president in 2008, according to the Post analysis, which was based on data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
More than 40 percent of the itemized donations to his Free and Strong America PAC in 2010 came from the finance and banking sector, compared with 27 percent during his last presidential run, the data show.
That track record puts him well ahead of former House speaker Gingrich (Ga.), former Minnesota governor Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), who each raised 28 percent or less of their money in the 2010 cycle from the finance and banking sector, records show. Those employees and companies contributed $1.8 million to Romney, compared with $705,000 to Gingrich, $704,000 to Pawlenty and $626,000 to Bachmann.
Obama raised less than 10 percent of his donations in 2008 from Wall Street and other finance industry donors, although the sheer scale of his $750 million campaign meant that he outraised his opponents on that score. Obama campaign aides have said they expect to meet or exceed that total for 2012.
Romney advisers insist that Obama could still outraise them on overall Wall Street donations. “We won’t raise as much from the financial industry as President Obama, but we expect to hold our own,” said one member of his team.
Romney has told major donors that he needs to raise at least $50 million for a competitive primary bid. At the Harvard Club event in April, he asked the 200 or so in attendance to raise at least $25,000 each, and many will bring in far more than that, participants said.
“We in the financial services industry see clearly that the country is on the precipice of a sovereign financial problem,” said Romney fundraiser Emil Henry Jr. of Tiger Infrastructure Partners, who was an assistant Treasury secretary under Bush. “Backing Governor Romney is a key way to get ahead of that challenge.”
Romney has said he opposes Democratic efforts to raise the 15 percent tax rate commonly paid by hedge-fund managers and private-equity partners. He also has frequently criticized Obama for “scapegoating” investors.
“He demonizes Wall Street as if Wall Street greed is something new,” Romney said in April 2010, referring to the president. “It’s been there for a long time, and that is not the reason we had an economic meltdown.”
The financial industry overall has abandoned Obama and other Democrats over the past two years. Some of the shift has clearly benefited Romney. Goldman Sachs partner Henry Cornell, for example, gave Obama $2,300 in 2008 but contributed $5,000 to Romney two years later, records show. Cornell did not respond to a request for comment.
David Douglass, a California venture capitalist who gave Obama $2,300 in 2008, said he has long supported Romney because of their personal interaction in the business world, calling him a “smart, unbiased” candidate.
He said he donated to Obama only because he wanted to impress his teenage daughter by taking her to a fundraising breakfast with the candidate. “I got a great return on investment,” he said.
But most of Romney’s early financial supporters for 2012 come from the ranks of longtime GOP fundraisers such as Eisenberg, a former Goldman Sachs partner and founder of Granite Capital International Group.
“He will garner support from Wall Street and beyond,” Eisenberg said of Romney. “The critical issue will continue to be the economy and jobs and the deficit, and there’s nobody who has a proven track record comparable to Mitt’s.”
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Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.