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Candidates Woo Bush Donors for 'Invisible Primary'

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By Chris Cillizza and Michael A. Fletcher and Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 10, 2006

Last month, a group of Republican royalty gathered to be wined and dined by Gov. Mitt Romney in Boston. On Friday night, they ate at Copia, a pricey Mediterranean steakhouse. On Saturday, they had breakfast at the Four Seasons and then lunched at Fenway Park.

Key Romney advisers made presentations about the path to the presidential nomination they see for the Massachusetts governor. Others walked attendees through how a race would be financed.

Among the 160 or so wealthy Republicans the Romney campaign had invited for the weekend was a particularly important group of potential supporters -- the 40 or so men and women who were "Rangers" or "Pioneers" in the 2000 and 2004 campaigns of President Bush.

These Rangers, who raised $200,000 or more for Bush in 2004, and Pioneers, who each collected more than $100,000 as part of campaigns that redefined modern political fundraising, are being intensely courted by GOP presidential aspirants across the country, both in large gatherings such as the one in Boston and one-on-one.

Bush's 2000 campaign forever changed the fundraising dynamic for presidential races, showing that an enormous early financial advantage was the same as winning an "invisible primary." In that race, there are no voters, elections or overt campaigning -- just the wooing of fabulously rich people with the rewards of insider status, complete with fancy titles.

So far, Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain are well ahead among the Republican contenders, though neither yet has come up with monikers like "Pioneer" or "Ranger" to flatter the biggest donors.

The competition for these donors is one of the most important contests within the larger presidential race, serving as an early measure of a candidate's viability on the national stage, particularly because neutral observers peg the price of winning the 2008 presidential nomination at as much as $100 million.

In this new world of presidential fundraising, finding a wealthy person and persuading him or her to write a check is not the gold standard. Instead, the goal is to identify individuals who not only can contribute the federal limit of $2,000 but also can persuade 100 or so of their friends and business associates to do the same.

"It's important, because in the invisible-primary phase, elected officials who have their own organizations and their own power to endorse pay attention to who the big fundraisers are coalescing around," said Wayne Berman, a Bush Ranger in 2004 and a backer of McCain in the 2008 race.

Bush developed the Pioneer program while he was governor of Texas and preparing for his 2000 White House run. His early fundraising helped ensure that he was viewed as the inevitable GOP nominee and helped reduce the competition for the nomination.

The genius of the program was twofold: It let the fundraising team showily quantify its efforts, and it got donors involved in the day-to-day operations and planning of the campaign, according to Alex Vogel, a senior adviser to outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

"The relationship did not start or end when they wrote a check," Vogel said. "They were not just donors but part of the organization."

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