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GOP money in Florida slow to flow to McCain

John McCain should be sitting pretty — catching his breath, building his campaign organization and filling up his campaign account — while Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton rip each other to shreds.

Except that in the must-win state of Florida, many of the top Republican money-raisers have yet to step up for their presidential nominee.

Consider that of Florida's 66 so-called Pioneers or Rangers who raised at least $100,000 for Bush-Cheney in 2000 or 2004, only nine have contributed to McCain, a St. Petersburg Times analysis finds. While losing election after election throughout February, Clinton raised more than twice as much money from Florida — $1.25-million — as McCain, who drew $489,000. So did Obama, taking in more than $1-million from Florida.

"I don't think we'll ever be able to raise the same kind of money as Barack Obama, but you're seeing the campaign get very invigorated as far as raising money in Florida,'' said Brian Ballard, a Tallahassee lobbyist and one of the earliest major Florida fundraisers to back McCain. "The campaign gives us a goal and we meet or exceed it every time."

The Times analysis is based on the latest campaign finance reports, which don't include March fundraisers where McCain allies say he raised about $2-million in Naples and southeast Florida. Several top GOP check-raisers in Florida said they have donated to McCain since that February reporting period ended.

In fact, McCain is scheduled to raise money in Jacksonville on Thursday at a luncheon hosted by, among others, insurance executive Tom Petway and developer John Rood, both Rangers who raised at least $200,000 for Bush-Cheney in 2004. Petway had been uncommitted in the presidential primary, while Rood backed Mitt Romney.

Still, even as top money-raisers for Gov. Charlie Crist have started helping McCain, such as St. Petersburg developer Brent Sembler and Palm Beach County businessman Harry Sargeant, the latest campaign finance reports show there was no rush to unite behind the GOP nominee.

Of 60 Floridians identified by the Romney campaign or in news accounts as key fundraisers for the former presidential candidate, only two gave to McCain the month after he won Florida's crucial Jan. 29 primary, according to the Times analysis. Likewise, among 27 Republican Florida fundraisers helping former candidate Rudy Giuliani, only two had given to McCain by the end of February.

"There's a healing process that takes place once your candidate loses, and everybody takes a different amount of time to do that, but the vast majority are doing it. In every single city in Florida we're all binding together,'' said Bonita Springs developer Al Hoffman, a McCain backer in the primary and former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Of the 927 Floridians who donated to the McCain campaign in February, 85 had previously donated to other presidential candidates, including five Obama donors and two Clinton donors.

"You really haven't seen it cranked up yet. And now Gov. Crist is really chairman of the McCain effort in Florida," said Hoffman, noting that Giuliani's Florida finance chairman, Joe Fogg of Naples, is now helping McCain, as is South Florida heart doctor Zach Zachariah, a top Florida fundraiser who had supported Fred Thompson in the primary.

But Republicans have been lagging behind Democrats in fundraising throughout this election cycle. All told, McCain has raised nearly $65-million across the country, compared with $194-million for Obama and $169-million for Clinton.

Florida donors have pumped nearly $7.8-million into the Clinton campaign, $5.4-million to Giuliani, $4.7-million to Obama, $4.5-million to Romney, and $3.7-million to McCain.

Despite the unusual money-raising advantage Democrats have enjoyed this cycle, veteran Republican fundraisers in Florida are upbeat. McCain is on track to bring his 2008 Florida haul up to $4-million by the end of April, and is expected to raise money in the Tampa Bay area and Orlando late in the month.

"I'm on a lot of conference calls, and I have to tell you the unity is there — 100 percent," said Tampa developer Al Austin, another Bush-Cheney Ranger and former Giuliani backer who is enthusiastically helping McCain, though his own donation has not yet shown up on a finance report.

"McCain is on cruise control right now,'' Austin said, "and the longer this feud goes on between Hillary and Obama, the bitterness gets deeper and deeper, and if this thing goes to the summer they've got some real problems."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.

GOP money in Florida slow to flow to McCain 03/28/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 30, 2008 9:30am]
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