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For GOP hopefuls, a race before the race

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 29, 2011

On a single day in October, Eldon and Regina Roth each wrote separate checks to political funds set up by Republican Mitt Romney in five states around the country. That allowed the South Dakota beef barons to donate $190,000 - well beyond limits for contributions to federal political action committees.

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The state-based funds are among several creative - and perfectly legal - strategies embraced by potential GOP presidential contenders as they lay the groundwork for 2012. The efforts amount to an aggressive and sophisticated preliminary campaign in which candidates exploit incentives and gaps in the nation's patchwork election system.

In essence, the strategies allow hopefuls to begin running for president before they actually run. These pre-presidential efforts are particularly important in the current election cycle, which is unfolding far more slowly than it did four years ago, when more than a dozen candidates had already launched their campaigns by this point.

By setting up state political funds, as Romney and several others have done, presidential hopefuls can go to their most loyal supporters with deep pockets - funders like the Roths - and solicit larger donations than they could for the federal PACs required of official candidates.

The state-based money can be used to fund administrative costs for political operations and to support local GOP politicians in primary states. And then, when they form an official campaign, candidates can hit up the same donors again.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, for example, has created PACs in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire and is using money from his federal non-presidential account to help pay for the marketing of his new book, "Courage to Stand." The effort includes a lavish, well-produced campaign-style video that only briefly refers to the memoir.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a GOP rainmaker who raised millions for the 2010 elections, has established a PAC in Georgia, which has less restrictive election rules than his home state. Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and others have also built support by distributing money from their coffers to friendly lawmakers in battleground states.

"Running for president before you announce has turned into a profession in and of itself," said Ron Bonjean, a GOP consultant and former House leadership aide.

And for the donors, Bonjean said, it is "a two-fer: They are able to give money to a potential presidential candidate they believe in, and they also are supporting politicians at the state and local level."

Romney, who deployed a similar network of state political funds for the 2008 campaign, is the clear leader in PAC fundraising. Last year, he brought in more than $6 million, compared with about $3.5 million raised by Palin, more than $2.4 million for Pawlenty and about $1.5 million for Barbour, according to the latest public reports.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich also runs an independent organization that brought in $10.6 million through the end of September, according to the latest information available.

More than $1 million of Romney's donations came from just a dozen supporters, public documents show. The gifts include more than $200,000 from two members of the Marriott family in Bethesda and $91,600 from New York Jets owner Robert Wood Johnson IV and his mother, Betty.


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