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Republican candidates woo big Bush donors

President Bush's "Rangers," who raised $200,000 or more for Bush in 2004, and "Pioneers," who each collected more than $100,000 as part of campaigns that redefined modern political fundraising, are being intensely courted by GOP presidential aspirants across the country.[!]
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Last month, a group of Republican royalty gathered to be wined and dined by Gov. Mitt Romney in Boston. On Friday night, they ate at Copia, a pricey Mediterranean steakhouse. On Saturday, they had breakfast at the Four Seasons and then lunched at Fenway Park.

Key Romney advisers made presentations about the path to the presidential nomination they see for the Massachusetts governor. Others walked attendees through how a race would be financed.

Among the 160 or so wealthy Republicans the Romney campaign had invited for the weekend was a particularly important group of potential supporters -- the 40 or so men and women who were "Rangers" or "Pioneers" in the 2000 and 2004 campaigns of President Bush.

These Rangers, who raised $200,000 or more for Bush in 2004, and Pioneers, who each collected more than $100,000 as part of campaigns that redefined modern political fundraising, are being intensely courted by GOP presidential aspirants across the country, both in large gatherings such as the one in Boston and one-on-one.

Bush's 2000 campaign forever changed the fundraising dynamic for presidential races, showing that an enormous early financial advantage was the same as winning an "invisible primary." In that race, there are no voters, elections or overt campaigning -- just the wooing of fabulously rich people with the rewards of insider status, complete with fancy titles.

So far, Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain are well ahead among the Republican contenders, though neither yet has come up with monikers like "Pioneer" or "Ranger" to flatter the biggest donors.

The competition for these donors is one of the most important contests within the larger presidential race, serving as an early measure of a candidate's viability on the national stage, particularly because neutral observers peg the price of winning the 2008 presidential nomination at as much as $100 million.

A new goal
In this new world of presidential fundraising, finding a wealthy person and persuading him or her to write a check is not the gold standard. Instead, the goal is to identify individuals who not only can contribute the federal limit of $2,000 but also can persuade 100 or so of their friends and business associates to do the same.

"It's important, because in the invisible-primary phase, elected officials who have their own organizations and their own power to endorse pay attention to who the big fundraisers are coalescing around," said Wayne Berman, a Bush Ranger in 2004 and a backer of McCain in the 2008 race.

Bush developed the Pioneer program while he was governor of Texas and preparing for his 2000 White House run. His early fundraising helped ensure that he was viewed as the inevitable GOP nominee and helped reduce the competition for the nomination.

Donors become part of the campaign
The genius of the program was twofold: It let the fundraising team showily quantify its efforts, and it got donors involved in the day-to-day operations and planning of the campaign, according to Alex Vogel, a senior adviser to outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

"The relationship did not start or end when they wrote a check," Vogel said. "They were not just donors but part of the organization."

The big donors received top-level strategy briefings and were feted at campaign events. Many received appointments to the transition team after Bush was elected, and many others received ambassadorships, including Ron Weiser to Slovakia and Howard Leach to France.

Both Romney and McCain now count more than two dozen Pioneers and Rangers as supporters and have sought commitments from many others.

Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has on staff Anne Dickerson, who ran the high-dollar program for the Bush campaign in 2004, and he has the backing of a handful of Bush Pioneers and Rangers. Other potential 2008 GOP candidates, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Sens. Sam Brownback (Kan.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.), are far behind in the pursuit of these fundraising big shots.

Although Democrats do not have an equivalent for the Rangers and Pioneers, their leading candidates have already begun making the rounds of wealthy donors.

Last week, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) ventured to New York to meet with a group of potential donors assembled by liberal philanthropist George Soros.

And Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) has spent much of the past two years building a fundraising infrastructure that raised nearly $50 million for her lopsided reelection campaign. The donors who contributed to that campaign can give again, should she run for president in 2008.

Ed Rogers, a Republican lobbyist not affiliated with a potential presidential candidate, said that with just 14 months remaining before the first ballots are cast, any candidate not knee-deep in conversations with Rangers and Pioneers is already falling behind.

"We are going to have a nominee by February 6th," 2008, Rogers said. "You have to have all of your money at the opening gun."

McCain and Romney are mimicking the Bush model not only in terms of the individuals they are courting but also in the approach they are taking to their pitch: a heavy emphasis on personal attention, meeting one-on-one with prospective donors, inviting them on trips and even soliciting them in that old K Street favorite: at sporting events.

Sig Rogich, a Las Vegas image consultant who has worked for presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said he first discussed becoming a major fundraiser for McCain nearly two years ago when the two men were ringside at a boxing match featuring former champion Oscar De La Hoya.

"I told him that if the time came that he became a candidate, I'd be there for him," Rogich said.

Ron Kaufman, who is supporting Romney, made up his mind on a flight with the Massachusetts governor over South Carolina not long ago.

Kaufman, political director in the George H.W. Bush White House, had picked up a copy of Thomas L. Friedman's "The World Is Flat" and planned to give it to Romney. "Before I could even mention the book, he waxed eloquently in a soliloquy that I call 'The World Is Flat: The Oral Edition,' " Kaufman recounted. That episode about Friedman's treatise on globalization "cinched" his support for Romney, he said.

Anne Dunsmore, a California fundraiser, got to know Romney during his work as chairman of the Republican Governors Association and was impressed by what she called his sense of optimism. Although he never asked, Dunsmore decided that she would plug Romney into her well-cultivated network of political contributors, should he decide to run for president.

"It was an easy choice being part of this family, no matter what he chooses to do," said Dunsmore, a Bush Ranger who has worked on five presidential campaigns.

Although most Rangers and Pioneers expect and demand personal contact with the candidates seeking their help, their decisions on whom to support are often shaped more by a desire to be on the winning team than by a sense of friendship.

"It's much more like a professional recruitment than it is a romance," Berman said. "A lot of it has to do with discussions about how the campaign's fundraising is going to work, the team, what the candidate's approach on fundraising is going to be."

Rogich put it more bluntly. "At the end of the season, there is a column with an 'L' and one with a 'W.' I want to be in the 'W' column," he said.