Fundraisers delay efforts as candidates take temperature of voters

At this point in the last presidential cycle, Hollywood donors were being courted by candidates as if Wilshire Boulevard were just a hop, skip and a jump away from downtown Des Moines.

It was the beginning of a hard-fought, bitter “money” primary, an early indicator of a candidate’s prowess and momentum — and also a stark contrast to what has gone on so far this time around.

President Obama has yet to officially form a reelection committee, although the man who is expected to be campaign manager, Jim Messina, recently had a breakfast with prominent Los Angeles area fundraisers to lay the foundation for what is expected to be a massive donor effort, targeting as much as $1 billion by some accounts.

On the Republican side, there’s a large field of potential candidates, but a scant pool of those who’ve been willing to dive in this early. The dynamicsare unpredictable, with Tea Party favorites like Michele Bachmann weighing bids as well as outsize personalities such as Donald Trump. Although some, like Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), have been making some overtures for industry support, he, like the dozen or so other likely contenders, has yet to form an exploratory committee. One who has is Fred Karger, a former actor and Republican party operative who would be the first openly gay candidate to seek the GOP nomination. He also is the first to be up with ads in Iowa, but his campaign is, despite prominent coverage in the Washington Post and elsewhere, quixotic.

“Everybody is keeping their powder dry now, waiting,” says Ken Solomon, the CEO of the Tennis Channel and Southern California finance co-chair of the Democratic National Committee. “It’s hurry up and wait.”

There’s also the matter of fatigue: It may not be wise to start tapping donors so quickly after a bruising midterm. “Except for members of the senate, the view is everybody wants to sit back and wait,” says John Emerson, executive with the Capitol Group companies and co-chair of the DNC’s Southern California finance committee.

As one of the most loyal constituencies of Democratic dollars, the industry is likely to be a key source of money for Obama’s reelection. Messina’s visits to major cities across the country were viewed as a way to reestablish ties to a pool of fundraising bundlers, some of whom have complained of being ignored in the first two years.

Obama has made a half dozen or so treks to California so far, compared to about 40 for Bill Clinton in his first term, more than anything reflecting how safely blue the state has become. But Obama also doesn’t have the same appetite for the glad-handing and coddling required at fund-raisers that Clinton did, and tellingly has chosen to overnight at the Beverly Hilton rather than at the homes of prominent fundraisers.

One top fundraiser in Los Angeles believes that stories of such rifts between the White House and the campaign financiers have been “overstated,” particularly when it comes to Hollywood, but Messina’s early visit is an indication of just how much the fundraising team will depend on the industry and Southern California to come through in 2012. There is more optimism among his avid industry supporters that, despite unhappiness with the compromise over tax cuts for the upper class, other successes and improved poll numbers temper serious rifts among progressives.

To a lesser extent, GOP hopefuls will also tap Hollywood, even if the party has a kind of tenuous relationship with showbiz and its leftward tilt. Such figures like country singer John Rich have given to Sarah Palin’s leadership PAC, while Kelsey Grammer and Jon Voight turned out for the launching of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s leadership PAC in 2009.

Politico and NBC News are co-hosting the first presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley on May 2, offering candidates traveling to the Los Angeles area for the event a chance to tap industry dollars. Last week, House Speaker John Boehner trekked to L.A. to speak before the conservative industry group Friends of Abe. The event was not a fundraiser, but certainly has helped energize industry Republicans for heightened engagement in the presidential contest.

The real race going on right now is not at the presidential level, but for the Senate, particularly Democrats who are defending 23 seats in their caucus to the GOP’s 10.

A flood of senators will descend on Los Angeles during the President’s Day break. On Feb. 24, Disney CEO Bob Iger is hosting an event at his home for four candidates who are current or former members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has been key to support for anti-piracy legislation, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Sen. Bejamin Cardin (D-Md.), with the committee’s chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), also in attendance.

But this is just the start. With so many Democrats seeking to defend their seats, in a cycle when the presidential race will suck up much of the oxygen, candidates have to contend with the fact that the most active and avid donors are likely to max out quickly — federal election law limits donors to a maximum of $46,200 to individual candidates per cycle.

Says one prominent fundraiser: “Everyone wants us to commit to them now because even by the end of 2011, it will be too late.”

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