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Florida Bush donors trickle to McCain

The vaunted Bush money machine in Florida has yet to step up for John McCain.

Some of Florida's most elite Republican fundraisers quietly grumble about McCain, cite his campaign's lack of outreach or just gripe about the tough economy. Others say no candidate could match the financial performance of Jeb and George Bush in Florida, while still more say the Bush family network has been succeeded by a new, Charlie Crist generation of money-raisers jumping enthusiastically behind McCain.

Regardless of the explanation, the numbers are striking. Of the 55 Floridians the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign designated as top fundraisers, either "Pioneers" who brought in at least $100,000 or "Rangers" who raised at least $200,000, only 20 have written their own check to the McCain campaign, a St. Petersburg Times analysis found.

"I don't recall getting a phone call from anybody from the campaign saying, 'Where are you?' " said Robert Coker, senior vice president of U.S. Sugar Corp. in Clewiston, who raised more than $100,000 for Bush-Cheney in 2004 and said he helped raise "a little bit" for McCain, an opponent of sugar price supports.

Florida is hardly shunning the McCain campaign. Through May, McCain had raised more than $8.1-million from the Sunshine State, which is about $1-million less than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton raised here, and $1-million more than Sen. Barack Obama, according to campaign finance reports.

But those records do not include contributions of less than $200, a category of fundraising the Obama campaign has done especially well in. Obama's campaign says it raised $11.9-million from Florida through May, counting those small donations.

Even with McCain hitting his fundraising targets in Florida, it's noteworthy that so many prominent GOP fundraisers of the last two decades have yet to give even token support to McCain. Not having Jeb Bush, the president's brother, in the Governor's Mansion leveraging his own influence makes a huge difference.

"Come on, the guy was the sitting governor of the state of Florida, so naturally a large number of Jeb Bush supporters such as myself were encouraged to support his brother," said Tramm Hudson, a Sarasota banker who raised more than $100,000 for Bush-Cheney '04.

Individuals can give up to $2,300 to a primary or general election campaign, but the prized fundraisers are so-called bundlers who can dig into their Rolodexes for friends and associates willing to contribute as well. These networking fundraisers are credited with the contributors they deliver and can be responsible for driving in big, big money.

Once the nomination was decided, Jeb Bush wrote a $1,000 check to McCain.

Among the biggest Florida Bush bundlers still AWOL from the McCain effort as of May 31 were former Mitt Romney national finance co-chairman Mark Guzzetta of Boca Raton, former Rudy Giuliani backer and former Gov. Bob Martinez of Tampa, Zach Zachariah of Sea Ranch Lakes, and media entrepreneur and former Jeb Bush aide Justin Sayfie of Miami.

Through May 31, Obama had raised more than twice as much as McCain's $120-million, though the extended Democratic primary ate up most of that. The latest campaign reports showed Obama had $43-million on hand, compared with McCain's $36-million, according to OpenSecrets.org. Also, the Republican National Committee had more than $53-million on hand, compared with $4-million for the Democratic National Committee.

Asked why he had not contributed to McCain, Hudson, a former Sarasota GOP chairman, noted that he had hosted a fundraiser for Giuliani.

"Obviously, we were very disappointed with the outcome of the Florida primary," Hudson said. "And candidly, I'm in banking, and banking has been in the pits, and I have not been prompted to write the checks. But I support Sen. McCain and think he'll be a great president."

Brian Ballard, a Tallahassee lobbyist who is a co-chairman of McCain's national finance team and head of his Florida operation, said it's silly to try to gauge fundraising support for McCain by looking at which of Bush's big fundraisers have joined the cause.

He argues that in the election two years ago, Gov. Charlie Crist helped usher in a "new guard" of money people who will back McCain, and that many of Bush-Cheney's top fundraisers had close connections to the president or Jeb Bush.

"I don't know where the Rangers and the Pioneers are," he said. "I know we're hitting them up."

Ballard estimated that since Florida's Jan. 29 primary, the campaign has raised $15-million in direct contributions to the campaign and donations to the national party, to which donors can contribute up to $28,500. He said it's on track with its goals.

"But it's a tough year to raise money as a Republican," Ballard said. "Anybody who tells you different is not being square with you. The economy is tough, and we're going into a pretty stiff headwind. If we didn't have John McCain as a candidate, we'd be in dire, dire straits."

He estimated that July would be slow but predicted fundraising will pick up in August, when McCain is expected to visit the state twice. Several of McCain's surrogates are expected to campaign in Florida as well, he said, though details are still being worked out.

"I know your story will say that McCain struggles with Florida money guys. No, he doesn't," Ballard said. "Everybody is struggling with an old guard change. It's a new guard. It came in two years ago with the governor, and those guys are doing great."

He acknowledged that many of Romney's top fundraisers — many of whom had backed Bush-Cheney — "have been slow to come to the party, but I'm hoping that will change."

Among them are Fred Leonhardt, an Orlando lawyer and lobbyist. He recently committed to becoming an "Innovator" — the title the McCain campaign gives those who raise at least $250,000.

He figures he's raised almost $90,000 of that so far. He also hosted an Orlando fundraiser for McCain this summer.

"I think that the Republican Party will be very unified with Sen. McCain. I think there is a lot of drama over who will be the vice president, and certainly there's a Florida fan club of Charlie Crist that would hope he gets that opportunity, but regardless I think they will all fall in line."

Leonhardt said he wasn't aware of any concerted effort to contact the Bush-Cheney Pioneers and Rangers.

"As of Monday, I'm going to be calling them all," Leonhardt said. "Thank you for the heads-up."

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

Florida Bush donors trickle to McCain 07/06/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 7, 2008 7:55pm]
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