Commentary: Mitt Romney isn't seeing love or money this time around

Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)
Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney went Californian after losing the Republican presidential nomination four years ago.

He bought a fabulous ocean view mansion in La Jolla, tried mightily to help elect his friend Meg Whitman as California governor and even did hard time by attending a California Republican Party convention.

Romney is perceived as the front-runner to win the GOP presidential nomination this time around. But despite his best efforts to become one with the Golden State, Romney is finding California Republicans to be a tough crowd, particularly those who have money to spend on politics.

Given the tattered state of the economy, Republicans should have a solid shot at winning back the White House in 2012. But you can't beat someone with no one, and if California's situation is a barometer, no one has captured the collective Republican imagination, least of all Romney.

Republicans have no illusions they will capture California's 55 electoral votes in 2012. But all national candidates look upon California like the rest of us see ATMs. This is where the money is. That became clear yet again on Wednesday when Romney and an emerging rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, visited Southern California prospecting for support and money.

Romney opened strong in California four years ago when he embarked on his initial quest to be president, winning high-profile endorsements and raising big bucks. In his first quarter as a candidate in 2007, Romney raised $3.47 million in donations of $200 or more from Californians.

Despite his front-runner status, together with his ties to this state and nonstop campaigning, California has been less golden for him this time. In Romney's first quarter as a candidate in this campaign, Californians accounted for $2.36 million, his campaign finance report filed last week with the Federal Election Commission shows.

In Orange County, the vault within the vault for Republicans, Romney raised $706,000 in his first three months as an announced candidate in 2007. In his first three months as a candidate this time around, Orange County accounted for less than half of that, $316,000, his FEC filing shows.

"There is a plethora of candidates," Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, told me. "People really haven't decided."

Harkey and her husband gave a combined $4,600 to Romney in early 2007. Harkey says she still likes Romney, but is "impressed with Michelle Bachmann," and signed a letter encouraging Perry to enter the race.

"If Rick Perry were to jump in, he'd be a stellar candidate," Harkey said, though she noted Perry, unlike Romney, has not been fully vetted. She offered a tepid assessment of the front-runner: "I'm not not supporting Romney."

Romney's support has not disappeared. He's still the front-runner. The $18.3 million he reported raising nationally was four times the sum his nearest competitor has accumulated.

Whitman continues to help him raise money. Some donors who were part of John McCain's stable in the 2008 campaign have joined Romney, including Orange County real estate billionaire George Argyros, who gave him $2,500.

But much of Romney's California team from four years ago is notable for its absence this time. In early 2008, Romney released a list of 35 wealthy California business leaders who promised to advise him and, importantly, help him bundle donations from other contributors to fuel his candidacy. As of June 30, 23 had not donated to Romney's latest campaign.

Billionaire builder Rick Caruso, for one, raised $1 million for Romney four years ago. He is not likely to get involved in Republican presidential politics this time. That wouldn't play well in heavily Democratic Los Angeles, where he is considering running for mayor. Billionaire Southern California developer Ed Roski, a Romney man four years ago, also remains on the sidelines, at least for now.

Sacramento consultant Rob Stutzman, a top GOP operative who was part of Romney's effort in 2007 and 2008, hasn't re-enlisted. Nor has Orange County GOP chairman Scott Baugh, who was key to Romney's finance operation four years ago. Baugh isn't endorsing anyone for now.

Former California Republican Party chairman Michael Schroeder was Romney's California political director in 2007. This year, he is leaning toward Perry, though Perry is not expected to decide whether to enter the race until August.

"Donors and volunteers need to have a reason to get involved. You have to have someone who grabs your imagination, and there isn't anyone yet," Schroeder said.

Republicans are forever looking for their next Ronald Reagan. Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Chico, believes that candidate will be Perry, and circulated the letter signed by 19 legislators, including Harkey, encouraging the Texan to run for president.

Perry is playing heavily to evangelical Christians, which could help in a GOP primary but not in a general election. The safe bet is that Romney will end up with the nomination. But for now, Republicans in his sometimes home state of California are having second thoughts that he is the one.

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