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Race Is on for Member Backing in ’08

Mitt Romney has a head start on his Republican rivals in garnering endorsements for his fledgling presidential campaign on Capitol Hill, and he is set to announce another big-name backer today when former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is expected to line up behind the former Massachusetts governor.

Unlike Romney, most candidates have yet to name official Congressional liaisons for their campaigns, with four White House hopefuls officially entering the fray just within the past week.

All total, six Senators and four House Members are exploring a presidential run, with Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) the most prominent among them.

Romney has been the most aggressive by far in working to line up early Congressional backers, in part because he has no natural ties to Capitol Hill but also to help quell concerns among some party activists about the fact that he is a Mormon.

Romney named Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.) to lead his outreach effort to House Members, with Reps. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) and Dave Camp (R-Mich.) assisting in the effort as well.

“These folks are critical because they each have their organizations, which are going to help in a lot of the key states,” said a source within the Romney camp. “Be it financial, be it the ability to serve as a surrogate to their constituents, and grass-roots organizing as well.”

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) noted the broad geography represented by Romney’s House team and said that such early Congressional endorsements can help build momentum for a candidate.

Associates of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a frontrunner for the GOP nod, say the campaign isn’t fazed by Romney’s early announced support. They tout his lengthy experience on Capitol Hill and argue that McCain may well be his own best liaison.

“Certainly the Senator has very strong relations with Members of Congress and there is quite a bit of private discussions taking place and announcements will come at an appropriate time,” said one source within the Senator’s camp.

Kingston, who is “clearly leaning Romney” at this point, said Members can be helpful to presidential candidates not only by serving as a surrogate to their constituents but also in identifying large donors.

“Remember, the primaries are always inside party baseball to begin with,” he said. “If they [Members] have a comfort level with the candidate, that can be shown to their constituents back home.”

Kingston recalled that former Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) was an instrumental in helping then-Gov. George W. Bush (R) with fundraising for his 2000 presidential campaign. Likewise, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) served as the Bush campaign’s House liaison, a post that initially was offered to Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), now the Minority Leader.

Boehner turned the initial offer down because he already was committed to the presidential campaign of his home-state colleague, then-Rep. John Kasich (R-Ohio).

The 2008 primaries, more so than recent White House elections, will test Member loyalties on both sides of the aisle.

This cycle, House Democrats seem to face some of the biggest quandaries with the candidacies of both Clinton and Obama, who would be the first woman and the first black president, respectively, if elected.

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