- The Washington Times - Friday, October 16, 2009

On the same day President Obama jetted to San Francisco on Air Force One for a gala Democratic fundraiser, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, flew commercial to California on a far less glamorous mission - to begin forging the relationships to bankroll his possible 2012 presidential run.

As the two men worked the donor circuit Thursday in Northern California, they offered a first look at the starkly different circumstances facing the major national parties as they look toward 2012.

“It’s like comparing an Indy race car to chitty chitty bang bang,” said Phil Musser, a political adviser to Mr. Pawlenty. “But we’re having fun and doing it with a smile on our faces.”

For Mr. Obama, the San Francisco function was the latest in a series of massive, seven-figure fundraising events. Donors paid as much as $32,000 to attend an exclusive dinner with the president - meaning about 200 people - while another 1,000 supporters paid $500 each to hear Mr. Obama speak at a rally. All told, the gatherings were expected to raise more than $2 million.

Two similar blowouts in July raised $9.3 million for the Democratic National Committee, its best month of fundraising during the new campaign cycle.

Mr. Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and others who are widely thought to be mulling a White House bid are spending the fall on less glamorous endeavors, deeply enmeshing themselves in the long, arduous spade work needed in case they decide to take on Mr. Obama in 2012. That has meant crisscrossing the country to build crucial relationships with major fundraisers and political figures.

In the flats of Nebraska last week, Mr. Romney met with one-time Bush pioneer Duane Acklie and served as a keynote speaker at the Nebraska Republican Party’s biennial Founders’ Day event in Omaha. Mr. Acklie remains uncommitted, but said he is hopeful about the party’s future.

“It does seem like there’s an opportunity for a new Republican leader,” he said.

Ever since Congress reined in unlimited donations to political parties, presidential candidates have relied heavily on so-called bundlers, people who can raise large sums in $2,400 chunks from their friends and associates. Building a healthy list of those bundlers is a critical first step in mounting a presidential bid.

While he’s in California, Mr. Pawlenty will be doing what his advisers have called “friend-raising,” trying to develop relationships with well-connected Republicans who can reliably bundle lots of checks. Mr. Pawlenty announced earlier this month that he had recruited William Strong, vice chairman of the financial giant Morgan Stanley, to head that recruiting for him.

Sen. John McCain had more than 800 bundlers who each raised at least $50,000 for his 2008 presidential campaign. During his failed primary bid that year, Mr. Romney recruited 345 fundraisers, according to the group Public Citizen, which tracks money in politics.

“Big fundraisers aren’t likely to commit this early, but this is the time that potential candidates start reaching out and introducing themselves,” said Scott Reed, a Republican political strategist. “Romney, Pawlenty, [former House Speaker] Newt Gingrich are all doing this.”

Candidates are also trying to unlock the potential of the Internet. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has raised more than $700,000 for her political action committee so far this cycle, much of it from grass-roots supporters reached through online appeals.

Mrs. Palin has paid more than $135,000 to the Virginia-based Internet fundraising consultant who worked on Mr. McCain’s presidential race.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has used his Fox television show and Web site to help him build an e-mail list. He’s made contributions from Huck PAC to conservative Republican congressional candidates in states, including Florida and South Carolina, that have pivotal presidential primaries.

The Free and Strong America PAC, which Mr. Romney oversees, has distributed donations to high-profile GOP candidates including $5,000 to Robert F. McDonnell, who is running for governor of Virginia, and $7,200 to Chris Christie, who is running for governor in New Jersey.

Mr. Pawlenty is raising money for his PAC, but also for the Republican Governors Association, where he serves as vice chairman, to support candidates in 2010.

“The 2012 campaign is another universe,” Mr. Musser said. “Right now, he’s traveling to help other Republicans and helping Republican causes as the party starts to work its way back.”