Closing in on a decision about whether to again run for president, Mitt Romney is finding that several past major fundraisers and donors in key states have defected to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
The donors, in interviews with The Associated Press, said they see in Bush what they liked about Romney in 2012, namely what they believe it takes to serve successfully as president, but also something Romney could not muster in his two previous campaigns: what it takes, both in personality as a candidate and in a supporting staff, to win the White House for the GOP.
Also, the donors said, they took the former Massachusetts governor at his word when he said he would not run for president a third time.
"I've got great respect for Gov. Romney, and I busted my buns for him," said Chicago investor Craig Duchossois, whose wife contributed $250,000 to a pro-Romney super PAC while he collected tens of thousands more for Romney's last campaign. "But I have turned the page."
The defections to Bush do not, as of yet, appear so definitive as to keep Romney from the race.
There are many free agents among the major GOP donors, each with the ability to contribute personally and collect from others the hundreds of millions needed to run a modern presidential campaign. They include Woody Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets; Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate; and hedge fund investors Paul Singer and Robert Mercer.
Earlier this week, several veterans of GOP politics told the AP they felt all of the major candidates — Romney, Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker among them — would be able to raise the money needed to compete in a GOP primary campaign that may feature as many as two dozen contenders.
But hesitation from some Romney loyalists and outright defection from others will make his path to the nomination, should he move ahead with a third campaign, a greater challenge than it was four years ago, when he was viewed as the front-runner from the campaign's outset.
"I think it's becoming exceedingly difficult," said Gordon D. Sondland, a member of Romney's national 2012 finance team who is now solidly behind Bush.
The undecideds include Johnson, who was among Romney's most powerful and vocal national fundraisers. One of Romney's biggest bundlers from 2012, New York-based investment banker Patrick Durkin, is solidly behind Bush, having already hosted a fundraiser for him in Greenwich, Conn.
Duchossois and several of his fellow former Romney supporters plan to host Bush in Chicago next month for a fundraiser arranged by Lisa Wagner, Romney's 2012 Midwest campaign finance director. She helped raise $25 million for Romney in 2012.
Along with Wagner and Durkin, Bush has also claimed Romney's 2012 Texas finance director, Allison McIntosh, and Sondland, who helped raise millions for Romney and the super PAC that supported his candidacy.
"A lot of these folks had already committed to Gov. Bush and aren't going to change their loyalty midstream," said Sondland, a Portland, Ore., businessman who said he took Romney at his word six months ago when he firmly stated his days as a candidate were over.
Several of Romney's backers in the Chicago-area said they respected Romney's worldview and policy positions, but are discouraged that he appears to be taking advice from the same cadre of advisers who led his 2008 and 2012 campaigns.
"Jeb represents the different traits, that are qualifications to hold the office and those required to be elected," said Terry Graunke, co-founder of a Chicago private equity firm. "He and his team appear to be much more capable of contemporary strategic policy."
Graunke was referring primarily to Sally Bradshaw, Bush's longtime senior political aide in Florida, and Mike Murphy, a top national strategist Bush has consulted for decades. Some Romney loyalists have also expressed concern about his former senior strategist, Stuart Stevens, who still speaks to Romney regularly.
Romney has acknowledged privately in recent weeks that he needs to make a decision soon — perhaps within the next two weeks. His aides acknowledge a third campaign will be more difficult than his second, but insist he will have the necessary financial support, noting his supporters raised more than $1 billion during the 2012 election.
A Mormon who recently relocated his primary residence to Utah, Romney retains a deep network of donors in his church and the West who are likely to help him financially should he decide to run. His 2012 national finance chairman, Spencer Zwick, a Mormon and Boston-based investment banker, remains one of his most loyal supporters.
Romney also has the support of stalwart donors who like Bush, but are still ready to commit again to the former Massachusetts governor's potential campaign.
"It's Romney first, then Jeb," said Bill Kunkler, a vice president of a Chicago private equity firm whom Romney telephoned this month to discuss the possibility of another run.
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