AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Gov. Rick Perry's on a mad dash for cash. He's reaching beyond his traditional in-state base as he tries to build a national fundraising machine large enough to compete with Mitt Romney's very deep pockets.
Perry is a prolific fundraiser in his home state, but Texas money and his established contacts around the country won't be enough to bankroll a presidential campaign. His fundraising record while running the Republican Governors Association, however, is strong — nearly double what his Democratic counterpart brought in during the first half of this year.
The test will be whether Perry can transform his lead in some opinion polls into cash — and whether his fundraising skills can compete with Romney, who raised $10 million in one day earlier in the year, or ultimately President Barack Obama, who raised the nearly $750 million he spent in the 2008 primary and general election campaigns from private donations.
"He's still basically a regional guy," said Bill Miller, a longtime Austin-based lobbyist, whose HillCo.PAC has contributed more than $250,000 to past Perry campaigns.
While trying to hang on to Texas donors, Perry is also courting would-be contributors in neighboring states and beyond. On Monday, he held two events in Oklahoma. He dined with a host of big donors at a posh Dallas hotel on Tuesday night, held a breakfast fundraiser in Austin early Wednesday, then headed to New Orleans for lunch and was in Houston for dinner. He had fundraisers in Midland and San Antonio on Thursday and has plans fundraising trips to California next week and Washington, D.C., later in September.
"You can't be a rocket forever. At some point they will stabilize," Henry Barbour, nephew of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the former Republican National Committee chairman, said of Perry's polling numbers. "But now is the time to be out there meeting everyone."
Raising money around the country is tougher than Perry's camp is used to. While Texas places no limits on individual donations, there's a cap of $2,500 per donor for presidential candidates. Perry will have to rely on bundlers — supporters who tap their network of contributors and lump the donations together to raise large sums of money. Barbour, for example, has pledged to raise $50,000 on behalf of Perry. Dirk Van Dongen, a Washington-based fundraiser who took in money for George W. Bush, is now in the Perry camp with a pledge to raise $500,000.
Like Bush, another Texas governor who had presidential ambitions, Perry brought fundraising veterans to Austin before entering the race, laying the groundwork for what could be an impressive money operation. One Washington insider, a top Bush fundraiser and former ambassador to Luxembourg, Peter Terpeluk, had promised to work for Perry but died of a heart attack last week. His death notice told mourners, "in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Perry for President 2012."
How many bundlers Perry has already brought on board nationwide is unclear. Mark Miner, Perry's campaign spokesman, declined to discuss "our internal strategies for fundraising."
Perry's bump in opinion polls has sparked speculation that he will attract donors who were previously unsatisfied with the Republican field and therefore had stayed on the sidelines. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is the GOP field's established money leader with a $12.7 million war chest as of July, $10 million of which he raised in one day in Las Vegas.
"We're starting from behind," Miner said. "Gov. Romney is individually wealthy and has been doing this for five years."
Perry isn't required to divulge how much money he has raised to the Federal Election Commission until Sept. 30. His fundraisers say he's angling to make a big splash with his first filing.
According to Texans for Public Justice, a state campaign finance watchdog, Perry raised more than $103 million from January 2001 through June 2011 for his gubernatorial campaigns, and all but about $11 million of that came from Texas sources.
Perry's largest gubernatorial contributors include Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons and oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, all involved in the "Swift Boat" campaign that dogged 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
Helping smooth the transition from Texas to national fundraising is Perry's experience with the Republican Governors Association, which he led until declaring for the presidency. Under his leadership, the association outraised its Democratic counterpart by a margin of 2-to-1, raking in $22.1 million during the first six months of this year.
"That has introduced him to a lot of donors across the country," Barbour said. "There are a lot of folks still out there. Some big names, some not. They're all going be looking at Perry now."
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