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Poor economy poses fundraising challenge for Obama

Political Panel:

Sept. 26, 201108:50
/ Source: The Associated Press

This is no 2008, when money seemed to fall from the sky for a young senator named Barack Obama.

In theory, fundraising should be even easier this time for the Democrat who shattered money records in his first White House campaign. He's the president now, with an unparalleled bullhorn and reach.

But his title isn't all that's changed. The economy is sickly, and he's in charge. That's not only threatening his re-election; it's also making it more difficult to inspire people to open their checkbooks for his campaign.

Many of the core supporters he counted on last time for small-dollar donations are disgruntled now. Some are personally cash-strapped. And he's had to cancel a slew of fundraisers as he tends to the business of governing a country that some fear could slide back into a recession.

With an important reporting deadline on Friday, the sour environment explains why Obama is holding seven fundraisers on the West Coast this week — and why he held a private conference call with donors late last week aimed at bucking up his top backers.

The president offered a spirited defense of his administration's accomplishments in those remarks, and campaign officials urged the top donors to redouble their efforts and stay focused ahead, according to a person familiar with the private call. They disclosed the contents of it only on the condition of anonymity.

Obama made a similar pitch — face to face — at fundraisers at the homes of wealthy donors from Seattle to the Silicon Valley to Hollywood over the past two days, appealing to mostly small groups of big-money supporters to hang onto the loving feeling they had for him back when he first ran for president.

"I need you guys to shake off any doldrums," the president told a Seattle audience Sunday. "I'm asking you to join me in finishing what we started in 2008."

For all the difficulties, Obama still is outpacing his Republican rivals in the money chase by the tens of millions, and, without a primary challenge, he doesn't have to spend what he's raising until next year. He's still going to raise a ton of money, which is needed for pricey TV ads and get-out-the-vote operations. He'll be helped by the Democratic National Committee's coffers, too.

At the same time, Democratic-aligned outside groups — he once opposed them but now all but supports them after GOP-leaning groups helped Republicans win big last fall — are banking cash to help him on the air and on the ground.

Still, there are signs that money isn't coming nearly as quickly or easily this year as it did in 2007 and 2008.

Back then, Obama raised a jaw-dropping $750 million for the primary and general elections.

He started raising money for his re-election this spring, and, within the first three months, raised $86 million for his campaign and the DNC, whose primary mission is helping the president win. But his team has dealt with canceled fundraisers due to the protracted debt ceiling debate — some of the events on the West Coast are making up for ones previously scrapped — as well as unhappiness from liberal groups and the typical summer lull in money raising.

Mindful of the tough environment, Obama's team set a goal of $55 million between the campaign and the party for the quarter ending Friday. If the campaign meets its goal, Obama would have to bring in roughly $120 million combined for each of the next five quarters to keep pace with his previous totals — an enormous task, given that the president's advisers initially told supporters privately they expected to match or exceed his totals of the 2008 race.

There are signs of difficulties.

The Obama Victory Fund — a joint fundraising arm between the DNC and Obama's campaign — raised just $3.6 million during July and August, compared with $7 million in June.

Political Panel:

Sept. 26, 201108:50

His campaign issued a "grassroots fundraising challenge" during the summer as a way to encourage activists to create their own fundraising Web pages and set individual targets. It set a goal of 20,000 donations through the program by this Friday. But by Monday morning, the website showed that the program had received only about 7,500. And a "national leaderboard" listing the top performers showed only five people raising more than $1,000, a fraction of what it would cost to attend one of Obama's high-end fundraisers.

Several times a week, Obama's campaign sends out emails trying to raise money by touting his policies, such as the jobs bill he's trying to get Congress to pass and the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays and lesbians in the military.

In one, deputy campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon said the campaign faced a serious deadline that would "determine what kinds of resources we can commit to which states."

In another, Ann Marie Habershaw, Obama's chief operating officer, asked supporters for donations of $3 or more — about the cost of a Starbucks latte. "What we do before midnight on September 30th determines our budget until the end of this year. And what happens this year will set in motion the results on Election Day 2012. It's that simple," Habershaw wrote.

Some of the president's fundraisers say Obama's jobs plan, announced earlier this month, helped them focus their pitches to prospective donors after many liberals criticized him for giving in to Republican demands during the summer's debt ceiling debate.

"After a very difficult period, the American Jobs Act has given this administration a very clear agenda and plan and that has given greater energy to the Democratic donor community," said Robert Zimmerman, a member of the Democratic National Committee and a New York-based donor.

Obama was expected to raise at least $4 million on the West Coast this week, from small gatherings where supporters paid the maximum of $35,800 each, to larger gatherings at Seattle's Paramount Theatre and Hollywood's House of Blues where as little as $100 to $250 got supporters in the door.

Obama officials are keeping a watchful eye on how much money rival Republicans will have raised when the quarter ends Friday. The deadline amounts to an important test of strength for Obama and his opponents with the 2012 presidential election little more than a year away. The president is expected to post much bigger numbers than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, though both are formidable fundraisers.

Obama's campaign has said it has received broad support from Democrats, pointing to more than 550,000 people who gave money through the end of June, with more than 260,000 giving to him for the first time. About 98 percent of the donors gave $250 or less. But about 4 million people gave to Obama's 2008 campaign, raising questions of whether many are sitting back and declining to donate at this point.

The campaign is expected to launch a drive to reach 1 million donors later this fall. That would put him ahead of schedule compared to the last campaign. Obama topped 1 million donors in February 2008, officials said.


Ken Thomas reported from Washington.