WASHINGTON - With Democrats now eyeing the sprint toward Election Day, party insiders are focused on a race they've already conceded: the big-money chase.
National Republicans have a massive fundraising lead that Democrats fear could swing the tide of the presidential election come November.
Democrats are scrambling to make up ground as their wealthy donors watch from the sidelines, reluctant to embrace new campaign finance laws that allow unlimited contributions to political causes.
As co-founder of super political action committee Priorities USA Action, 35-year-old University of Minnesota graduate Bill Burton was on the front lines of the effort at the Democratic National Convention this week, making connections and raising cash with hopes of keeping President Obama in the White House.
The adjustment of Burton, who came to the job with no background in fundraising, has mirrored the Democratic Party's struggles in a new era of corporate, union and billionaire activist influence in federal politics. Burton and his team are charged with wooing big donors, many of whom have taken cues from the president and steered clear of super PACs.
"It's put a drag on the ability of Democrats to raise that money. There's internal conflict for many of those donors," said Nick Nyhart, president of Public Campaign Action Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group.
Burton's group raised $10 million in August -- a record amount for them -- but still faces a wide fundraising gap.
The outside money funneled through super PACs has been a boon for Republican candidates. The super PACs that support Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, such as American Crossroads and Restore our Future, have spent tens of millions of dollars in key states on ads critical of Obama.
Publicly acknowledging they won't catch up with the groups supporting Republicans, Democratic super PACs hope to raise enough money to prevent Republican groups from completely swamping the president's re-election campaign with attack ads.
"It's just a question of getting Democrats on the same playing field," Burton said.
The attacks will accelerate as November approaches, but voters may not know who's funding them. Super PAC donations require disclosure of the donor's name, but the organizations also have nonprofit arms that can accept anonymous donations.
U.S. Sen. Al Franken and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison have railed against the "secret money," arguing that it affords wealthy donors too much influence over politics. Both also acknowledge that Democrats must raise their own funds in order to compete. Franken is even helping the cause. He was among the special guests at a liberal super PAC fundraiser in downtown Charlotte on Wednesday.
"Unfortunately, in this environment, unilaterally disarming would mean electoral defeat, which is exactly why the system needs to be changed," Franken said in a statement.
Republicans have taken advantage of their head start, raising at least triple the total of their Democratic counterparts.
In Tampa, Republican Party operatives, such as Karl Rove and former Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, used the convention as a base for high-priced fundraisers.
Priorities USA Action and two groups that support House and Senate Democrats have done the same, hosting insider events in Charlotte, including one party with sponsorships that cost as much as $100,000.
"We won't get reform by standing by and doing nothing," Burton said.
A Buffalo, N.Y., native, Burton rose from his first job as press secretary for former U.S. Rep. Bill Luther of Minnesota to White House deputy press secretary within a decade, making key contacts along the way.
"[Burton's] a person that ... can adapt extremely well," said Luther, his former boss.
After working on Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, he climbed to claim the second-ranked job in the White House press office.
Soon after he was passed over for press secretary in early 2011, Burton helped establish Priorities USA even as the president publicly condemned similar Republican groups.
Now Obama is reliant on Burton to help him secure a second term.
"It's an all hands on deck moment with the challenges that we have," Burton said.
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @CMitchellStrib