MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — With three debates behind them, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney embarked this weekend on a mad dash for campaign cash, each laboring to sway uncommitted Republican donors off the fence and to convince GOP elites that he would be the party’s best standard-bearer against President Obama.
The two presidential front-runners sharpened their messages here Saturday before hundreds of party leaders and donors, while in Florida, former Godfather’s Pizza executive Herman Cain upset them both by winning a closely watched straw poll in a display of conservative activist enthusiasm.
Perry and Romney are accelerating their efforts to woo new contributors this week before the Sept. 30 quarterly filing deadline. Perry will be raising funds in Washington and several mid-Atlantic states; Romney will be in New York and Boston — targeting the huge pool of traditional Republican donors who have remained stubbornly uncommitted thus far.
The two are hoping to post totals that signal strength and momentum heading into a fall campaign sprint that will be both consequential and costly. Perry’s backers have pegged his target at $10 million to $15 million, although his success will be judged in part by how much he raises outside Texas, where he is governor. Romney, meanwhile, is expected to post a similarly substantial sum, but aides cautioned that he was unlikely to surpass the $18 million he reported for the last quarter.
Obama also begins a fundraising swing across the West this weekend as his 2012 reelection campaign opens offices in the battleground states and stockpiles money for next year's general election. Campaign manager Jim Messina has predicted the campaign would raise a combined $55 million with the Democratic National Committee, a notable drop from the $86 million total reported last quarter.
But it’s the Republicans who are at a key juncture. After a meteoric rise in the national polls, Perry finds himself suddenly humbled after a series of debate matchups against the more practiced Romney and an aggressive slate of candidates trying to break into the top tier.
On Saturday came more disappointing news, as Perry finished second to Cain, 37 percent to 15 percent, in the Florida straw poll — a contest that Perry had said was important and in which his campaign had invested many resources. Romney came in a close third, taking 14 percent of the more than 2,600 votes cast.
A Romney adviser said that Perry’s uneven performance Thursday night in Orlando had pushed some big-name donors who had been open to his candidacy toward the Romney fold.
“People watch the debates and call up and go, ‘Golly, I really want to help,’ ” said Brian Ballard, Romney’s Florida finance co-chairman. “We’re getting more people, and they’re writing bigger checks.”
Yet it seems a number of the top Republican benefactors are content to remain on the sidelines at least a little longer.
“It’s about 50-50 — 50 percent have made commitments, 50 percent are waiting,” said Fred Malek, a prominent fundraiser who is uncommitted. “There’s not a good reason to get off the fence at this point. There’s plenty of time to commit.”
As another major fundraiser put it, “They’re waiting to see if one of the matinee idols would get in.”
A few donors have reignited their public pleas for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to enter the race. But although Christie has scheduled a fundraising swing this week in California, he and his advisers have strongly dismissed the possibility that he might run.
So in a long-fluid contest that is settling as a two-man battle for the soul of the party, Perry and Romney put their contrasting styles and ideas to the test here on this tony and remote island where 1,200 party leaders gathered for the biennial Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference.
For Romney, the visit to Mackinac was a homecoming. This was the playground of his youth, and when he stepped on stage he sounded, and was received by the enthusiastic crowd, as if he had already secured the nomination. He never mentioned Perry, instead speaking emotionally about big themes like patriotism — and taking sharp digs at Obama.
“Four years ago, we said together that Michigan seemed to be enduring a one-state recession,” Romney said. “President Obama said he’d change that — and he has. Now all the states are enduring a recession. I think the problem is he just didn’t understand how our economy really works, how America really works. His faith was not in enterprise, not in individuals. His faith was in government.”
Perry, seeking to rebound from Thursday’s debate, offered himself as the valiant leader that he says the party needs.
“Yep, there may be slicker candidates and there may be smoother debaters, but I know what I believe in,” Perry said. “And I’m gonna stand on that belief every day. I will guide this country with a deep, deep rudder.”
Borrowing a line from former president Ronald Reagan, Perry declared: “It is time for bold, bright colors, not pastels.”
But Perry was a long way from Texas. And from his podium, he could see across the main dining hall of the Grand Hotel, which was resplendent with pastels everywhere — soft green chairs, a sea-foam ceiling, peach walls and yellow and pink flowers on the lamp shades and curtains.
Even as conservative commentators pan Perry’s debate performances, the governor’s advisers said this would not inhibit his ability to secure contributions. Some of Perry’s top fundraisers said they understand the candidate’s strength is his talent for connecting with voters, not his fluency with issues and polish at debates.
“Are his debate performances helping? Obviously, probably not. But are they hurting? I don’t really think so,” said one major Perry fundraiser in California, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the campaign. “Debating is one of Romney’s big strengths; he could be king of Toastmasters. But that’s not what Governor Perry’s about. He’s all about retail politics.”
Perry’s political skills and apparent appeal to a broad swath of the Republican base initially alarmed many of Romney’s longtime donors. Earlier this month, donors called top officials at Romney’s Boston headquarters to question the campaign’s strategy and urge Romney to be even more aggressive with Perry than he already was.
Campaign manager Matt Rhoades, finance chairman Spencer Zwick, chief strategist Stuart Stevens and Romney himself responded with what one adviser described as a “very aggressive effort” to calm supporters through one-on-one conversations and meetings across the country.
“We understand this guy is real. He’s not [Rep. Michele] Bachmann or [former Utah governor Jon] Huntsman or one of these other vanity candidates, and we’re going to take him seriously. But the way we take him seriously is to run our campaign on our terms,” the campaign told donors, according to the adviser, who asked for anonymity to discuss campaign strategy candidly.
The adviser added: “If we start to wobble and race around and be responding to [Perry], we’re going to look like the flip-flopper that we were accused of successfully last time. And if Romney tries to take Perry on on his turf, he’s going to lose. He’s got to take him on on Romney’s turf.”
Eggen reported from Washington.