Since announcing his presidential campaign early this month, Mitt Romney has spent his time slipping the jabs of his GOP rivals while barnstorming the country for cash — casting his eye beyond the daily news cycle and toward winning the early contests next year.
Welcome to what political analysts call the invisible primary: a grueling behind-the-scenes phase of the nomination process where campaigns raise money and lay groundwork in preparation for next year's rapid-fire schedule of primaries stacked one after another, an ordeal that could run longer than usual in 2012 thanks to new proportionate voting rules that the national party adopted.
The first milestone arrives June 30, the end of the quarterly reporting period, when the candidates, aides and the press can compare who is best-positioned in the early money chase — and who is coming up short.
President Obama is likely to face no serious primary challenge, but even he is trying to boost his financial numbers, attending three separate fundraising events on a one-day trip to New York on Thursday.
Mr. Romney, too, also has been hustling ahead of the reporting deadline. Since kicking off his campaign three weeks ago, he has held at least 14 big-ticket fundraisers, stopping at a steakhouse in Las Vegas, a luxury hotel in Manhattan and a brewery in Idaho Falls along the way. His big-money bundlers, meanwhile, have been busy shaking their donor trees — an effort that involves hundreds of phone calls, emails and personalized invites to receptions.
"I think that's a good strategy," said Bobbie Kilberg, the fundraiser behind a Romney event next week at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, where guests can fork over $25,000 for a private table, $2,500 for a photo with Mr. Romney or $1,000 for a general reception ticket.
"You need to have the financial resources to carry forth a campaign that goes all the way through the end of the primaries and caucuses," Ms. Kilberg said. "So, I think to get a solid national support under your belt early is very wise, given the expectations of voters who want to see you have a financially viable and strong candidate."
Mr. Romney's approach stands out from that of much of the GOP field, where candidates have been focused on raising their profiles, in part by taking swipes at Mr. Romney, the front-runner in most early national polls.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty opened fire, ceased fire, and then opened fire again at the universal health care law that Mr. Romney signed into law as Massachusetts governor. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania attacked Mr. Romney for refusing to sign a pledge from a national pro-life group that demanded candidates end all taxpayer funding of abortions at home and overseas.
In previous decades, candidates had more time between primaries to raise money and prepare.
But in recent years, the schedule of primaries and caucuses has been compressed to a few months early in a presidential election year, which means campaigns have to have most of their money in the bank and their game plan set well before the Iowa caucuses, which are the traditional kickoff.
In addition to staking out policy positions, that means sewing up big-name bundlers, hiring sought-after staffers and jockeying for the endorsements of top party and elected officials in key early states.
"Ultimately, the voters will get the final say in the primaries and having money in the bank will get you to the next primary and the next primary," said former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, who ran the National Republican Congressional Committee for the 2000 and 2002 elections. "But right now, it's all a fundraising game."
Mr. Romney isn't the only one seeing early successes.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Austria David Girard-diCarlo recently got behind former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who officially entered the race this week. Mr. Girard-diCarlo said he will be tapping his network to raise cash for Mr. Huntsman before June 30, but he cautioned against reading too much into the early fundraising numbers.
"It's a barometer, but it's only a barometer," he said, adding that the big task in front of the candidate is to make sure he meets with as many potential donors as possible, so they can "see what he stands for and take their own personal measure of him."
"That makes it an arduous task when you haven't gone through the cycle before," he said. "Romney has and so he's been at it for a long time. I have great respect for Gov. Romney, but I think he has a tougher time winning against Obama than Jon Huntsman will."
At the same time, some of the big bundlers from prior campaigns have yet to join anyone in the field, and some expect that many are waiting to see whether Texas Gov. Rick Perry enters the race.
"A lot of people are still waiting," said Fred Malek, a bundler for Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee in 2008. "There's plenty of time left to make a contribution and to help raise money."
Mr. Malek also warned that second-quarter financing numbers could be misleading — especially since some of the candidates, such as Mr. Huntsman, just got into the race.
"Some have more established networks, others are just building theirs," he said. "I think the third quarter might be more meaningful because of that."
After he took in more than $10 million in donation pledges during his one-day fundraising kickoff last month, Mr. Romney is setting the pace for the field.
But money alone isn't enough.
During his presidential bid in 2008, he raised more than $107 million, but dropped out of the race after a disappointing showing on Super Tuesday, when Mr. McCain cemented his spot as the party's front-runner.
The time, Mr. Romney has earned support from some of his 2008 foes.
Ms. Kilberg raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Mr. McCain and planned to support Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Two hours after Mr. Barbour informed her he would not run, she received another phone call from Mr. Romney, who asked for her support.
"You got it," she said, putting her on a team that eventually included former McCain campaign staffers Lewis Eisenberg and Wayne Berman.
"Mitt's message is resonating and continues to bring significant support to him," Mr. Eisenberg said. "He knows that this is about jobs, economy and our growing debt, and he brings private-sector and public-sector success to address these issues."
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