- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 17, 2011

Rep. Michele Bachmann’s latest campaign finance report shows she has a strong network of small-dollar donors backing her presidential bid but, for now, she lacks the support of the big-money bundlers.

The report, which covers April to June, showed that Mrs. Bachmann collected more than $4.2 million and had $3.6 million in the bank — putting her neck-and-neck with Texas Rep. Ron Paul for second place in the early money chase and in the rearview mirror of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who raised $18 million and has $12.7 million in the bank.

With six months until the caucuses and primaries next year, the financial reports provide a glimpse into candidates’ abilities to draw the kind of support needed to win the partys nomination and put up a strong fight in the general election against President Obama, who raised $86 million in the three months that ended June 30.

Mrs. Bachmann raised $2.2 million over the past two weeks and transferred $2 million from her congressional campaign committee account. Her88,000 donations averaged $48 a pop.

The three-term congresswoman, though, has struggled to gain the backing of the all important high-dollar bundlers who can tap financial networks for hundreds of thousands of dollars for a campaign.

The challenge in front of Mrs. Bachmann is clear: Can the tea party favorite translate the grass-roots support that helped her raise almost $14 million for her re-election last year into the kind of mainstream credibility necessary to attract the major fundraisers who are crucial to a serious White House run.

“Presidential campaigns are obviously phenomenally expensive, and you have to raise the money in relatively small chunks,” said Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and a bundler who remains uncommitted in the race. “Even when you are talking about maximum contributions, $2,500 seems like a lot of money until you think of the hundreds of millions of dollars that these candidates need to raise, and bundlers are absolutely critical to that process for any serious candidate.”

Former Ambassador Mel Sembler, a Romney supporter, said that in order to survive the grueling presidential fight, candidates must have both small donors and bundlers.

“You need both sides of the equation,” Mr. Sembler said. “I think Michele at this point is doing the small-donor side, but she has to get out and get more of the national fundraisers and people across the United States, like myself, who have been at this for so many years, who are dedicated to this. She is learning how to do this and I’m sure she will get better and better.”

He added, “Do I think she’s going to be our nominee? No, but I like her out there talking.”

The Bachmann camp on Friday announced it is beefing up efforts to court major donors by forming a finance team of veteran fundraisers, including Guy Short, who helped her take in $13.5 million for her re-election last year; Mary Heitman, former finance director for the Republican National Committee; and Jody Thomas, onetime political director and fundraiser for former Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma.

GOP insiders, though, say the odds are against Mrs. Bachmann.

“She won’t be able to raise money from big donors because they don’t really like her,” said John Feehery, a Republican consultant.

Though Mrs. Bachmann appears poised to win the Iowa caucuses, there’s doubt about whether a win there translates into success in New Hampshires first-in-the-nation primary or elsewhere.

One big money bundler put it bluntly: “Iowa is theater — pure unadulterated theater.

“The money bundlers are not going to pay attention to Iowa because we all know Iowa is irrelevant,” he added.

Though Mr. Romney enjoys a financial lead over the rest of the field, political observers and GOP insiders say theres still an opening for a conservative to step in and gain traction with big-money donors.

“My sense is that a lot of the major fundraisers that normally would be engaged at this point at who are still holding back until the field matures a little bit more,” Mr. Van Dongen said.

Many people say they’re waiting to see whether Texas Gov. Rick Perry will enter the fray. While some political observers are convinced that he will jump in, others think hes trying to figure out whether he can raise enough money to seriously compete for the Republican nomination.

“Perry is a game changer,” Mr. Van Dongen said.

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