GOP candidates go after Perry's supporters in Texas

The national spotlight is focused for now on Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters will have the first say in choosing a Republican presidential candidate.

But Texas, which gave John McCain the delegates needed to claim the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, is a prime target for the candidates as well.

As votes in other states loom, Republican front-runners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are holding fundraisers or meeting with prominent, wealthy Texans who have thrown their support to Gov. Rick Perry.

They aren't necessarily looking for votes in the March 6 Texas primary, because the nominee may have been chosen by then.

But they do want support and money whether Perry stays in the race or not.

"They have spent a lot of time here getting in front of wealthy individuals," said Bill Miller, an Austin-based political consultant who has worked with both Republicans and Democrats. "They have introduced themselves and they ... are doing the soft pitch.

"They are doing it with people who are rich, politically active and have been in the Perry camp," he said. "I think most [Texans] are staying put with [Perry] for the time being. They are listening, they are being courted, and they are flattered."

But much could change in the next few weeks as the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary may show whether there's a clear leader or the race is wide-open.

As primaries continue in January, with South Carolina and Florida voters weighing in, presidential candidates not gaining traction will likely be out of the race.

As Perry's poll numbers remain low, candidates see an opportunity in Texas.

Texas has long served as an ATM for Republican and Democratic presidential candidates alike.

Texans sent more than $16.2 million to presidential candidates by the end of September, including $9.7 million to Perry.

But Perry has stumbled on the campaign trail.

He made the now-infamous "oops" comment after not being able to recall the name of the third government agency he would eliminate.

More recently, he got the 2012 election date and voting age wrong during a campaign speech.

He had hoped to pick up support after Herman Cain dropped out, but recent polls show him lagging behind Gingrich and Romney.

"He hurt himself in debates and the other day when he didn't know the voting age," said longtime Perry supporter Charles Moncrief of Fort Worth. "He's a good man, but he's hurt himself."

Some say Texans appear to be leaving the Perry camp to back other candidates, although Moncrief said he does "not know to what extent" that's happening.

But Moncrief said he's not going anywhere. "I'm going to continue to help him if there's any way I can," he said.

He and his wife, Kit, have both given money to Perry.

But Kit Moncrief has also given money to Romney and serves on the former Massachusetts governor's finance committee, a post she accepted "way before Rick Perry was a thought in the presidential race," Charles Moncrief said.

Campaign finance records show that Romney -- a GOP presidential candidate in 2008 who found support in Texas -- has an increasingly strong network in the state.

After Perry, President Barack Obama drew the most donations from Texans, followed by Romney.

Through September, Romney had pulled in more than $2.1 million from Texans, including contributions from longtime Perry supporters such as Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Houston home builder Bob Perry, Fort Worth attorneys Dee Kelly and Dee Kelly Jr., Fort Worth philanthropist Anne Marion and Dallas multibillionaire Harold Simmons.

Some say a number of Texans threw their support to Romney before Perry got in the race.

That's when Leslie Sullivan began helping raise Texas dollars for Romney.

She's the wife of longtime Texas Republican consultant Ray Sullivan, who is now Perry's campaign communications director.

Leslie Sullivan, a former fundraiser for Perry, has said she signed on to Romney's campaign only after she was told that Perry wouldn't run.

Dallas real estate mogul Harlan Crow recently threw a fundraiser at his home for Romney, telling at least one reporter that some Texas voters may be looking at candidates other than Perry.

"Romney has come to Fort Worth several times, and he knows a lot of people," said a Fort Worth Republican donor who requested anonymity because he's not authorized to speak publicly about the events.

"Most people who have committed to Perry will wait to see what he does. They don't want to abandon Perry, but there's Romney support here."

Romney recently even visited former President George H.W. Bush in his Houston home. Some say the visit was just a meeting between friends.

Others say Romney is seeking Bush's endorsement.

That would be a coup for Romney and a dig at the Texas governor, who drew Bush's endorsement in 1998, when he sought the lieutenant governor's seat.

"The Bushes understand very well the signal they sent by having Bush Sr. meet with Romney," said Larry Sabato, a political analyst and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "Nobody missed it. It wasn't a laying-on of the hands for Romney, but it was certainly a poke in the eye for Perry, no matter what the Bushes say publicly."

Texans who flip to another candidate while Perry's still in the race should remember that he will still be governor if he doesn't win his presidential bid, Sabato said.

"There's a danger to any Texan who gives to another candidate, obviously," Sabato said. "Perry plays hardball and has a long memory except for lists of things."

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