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Big GOP donors are holding back on 2012

  • Article by: MELANIE MASON and MATEA GOLD
  • Chicago Tribune
  • April 23, 2011 - 7:06 PM

WASHINGTON - Michael Ashner was one of Sen. John McCain's major fundraisers in the 2008 presidential campaign, bringing in $500,000 for the Republican nominee.

That makes the Oyster Bay, N.Y., real estate investment executive one of the most sought-after bundlers for prospective GOP candidates in 2012. Supporters of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have been particularly persistent in wooing him -- New York Jets owner Woody Johnson even invited him to take in a football game in his private box.

But Ashner is reluctant to sign up with any of the White House hopefuls.

"I'm sort of hiding under my desk when the calls come in," said Ashner, noting that he still wants to learn more about the contenders. "I don't see a dynamic candidate out there yet. A number of them have interesting credentials, but they just strike me as a little lackluster."

Ashner is part of a large swath of top-tier Republican donors still sitting on the sidelines of the 2012 race, according to prominent Republican political operatives and fundraisers, in a reflection both of torn loyalties and ambivalence about the field of candidates.

While the Republican race has yet to officially gel, likely candidates such as Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour are trying to nail down commitments from the party's biggest backers before they jump into the race.

Pawlenty and Romney are the only major candidates to have set up presidential exploratory committees, a step toward an official candidacy.

"I think many people feel the field is not yet complete and are holding back a bit to see how it develops before they make commitments," said Fred Malek, who was a national finance co-chairman for McCain.

"The prospective candidates themselves are taking much longer to reach a decision point, and therefore it would be expected that major donors would be holding back as well."

But several party fundraisers said their wariness was not just a product of the delayed start to the campaign. It also reflects a lack of passion for the contenders -- which they said could keep them out of the game until the general election.

"For me to be involved in a presidential election, I have to have my heart in it," said Florida real estate developer Al Hoffman, a former Republican National Committee finance chairman who has been courted by nearly every presidential hopeful. "I have to be emotionally involved and feel the world will come to an end if this person isn't elected. And I just don't feel that way."

The full measure of donor reticence will emerge in the next few months once the candidates set up their campaign committees, allowing them to accept donations. They hope to show flush bank accounts by July 15, when presidential candidates are required to file financial reports with the Federal Election Commission -- figures that will be one of the first concrete measures of their standing.

If many top bundlers continue to stay out of the race, the competition for dollars will be even more difficult than usual.

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