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Gingrich Has Long Way to Go to Catch Romney on K Street

Mark Kegans/Getty Images

Grass-roots Republicans may be flocking to Newt Gingrich in key primary states, but when it comes to winning over establishment Washington, D.C., the former Speaker still has a long way to go to catch former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

As of the end of September, Romney had collected close to $1.3 million from Washington-area donors in the $1,000-and-up category, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. By contrast, Gingrich had raised a paltry $89,650 from this group, notwithstanding his decades as a Washington lawmaker, strategist and pundit. Texas Gov. Rick Perry had raised $325,150 from the Beltway crowd.

Romney's dramatic advantage on K Street underscores the challenge that Gingrich in particular faces as he scrambles to ramp up his shoestring campaign to match his soaring poll numbers. As in the money chase overall — which showed Romney with $32.2 million in receipts as of Sept. 30 compared with Gingrich's $2.9 million — the former Speaker has an awfully steep hill to climb.

Gingrich's backing from Beltway donors and bundlers will spike as he racks up wins on the campaign trail, his D.C. loyalists argue. With the help of former aides and colleagues on Capitol Hill, who until now have formed the core of his K Street fan club, Gingrich is planning a fundraiser this Wednesday at the Occidental Grill & Seafood.

"I think there's a lot of surprise on K Street, and I think people are taking a second look," said Dan Meyer, senior vice president and partner at the Duberstein Group and Gingrich's former chief of staff. Meyer added: "People in Washington like to support people who are going to win. So all of a sudden, Newt's getting a lot of attention."

But even Gingrich's visit this week will demonstrate Romney's advantage. Gingrich's Occidental Grill reception has a 16-member host committee. In contrast, a D.C. "Young Professionals" reception for Romney on Dec. 14 boasts the backing of three dozen GOP lawmakers, more than a dozen co-chairmen who will raise $5,000 each, and 75 additional hosts who will raise $1,000 apiece.

Given the millions of dollars Gingrich has collected from influential donors for his strategic advice, speeches and nonprofit organizations, his backing on K Street has been surprisingly slow to materialize. Just one Washington donor had given the maximum $2,500 to Gingrich as of Sept. 30, according to the CFI analysis — Kenneth Duberstein, chairman and CEO of the Duberstein Group.

"This is not overwhelming establishment Republican support; it's actually overwhelming Republican establishment distancing," said Michael Malbin, the institute's executive director. "That may change. But it's surprising. It's much less than other insurgent candidates."

Gingrich's supporters brush aside his lack of K Street backing, which they argue means little in a year when many GOP donors and bundlers from previous contests remain on the sidelines.

"I think Newt's support is more outside the Beltway than within the Beltway," said a GOP lobbyist who noted he had given the maximum to Gingrich's campaign — a donation that presumably was made after the close of the most recent public reporting period. "I think it's showing that outside the Beltway, his message is resonating."

Another lobbyist backing Gingrich accused K Street of being out of touch: "I believe that a lot of people in the city are not aware of what is happening with Newt and the country at the grass-roots level. I think there is a complete disconnect."

Still, the discipline and muscle behind Romney's national campaign operation has gradually won him friends on K Street as well. Romney has won chits for supporting GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2008 and for the generous, strategic donations from his national and state-based political action committees.

"I think he had built up a lot of goodwill amongst many of the party people, even tea party types, that he helped to get elected," said a GOP lobbyist who is a Romney supporter. "I think that has translated into some support here in D.C."

Lately, Romney's even been raiding Perry's Texas fundraising base, parachuting in for events in Dallas and Houston last week that were expected to bring in $1 million.

"Being governor of the state of Texas is not the same as being president of the United States," said Lawrence Finder, a former McCain bundler and partner at the law firm of Haynes & Boone, who estimates that he has now bundled about $20,000 for Romney.

As for Perry: He had two successful Washington fundraising events in October and a meeting with about 60 K Street insiders. But while Perry will be in Washington on Wednesday for a forum hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition, he has no fundraisers planned here in the coming weeks, a supporter said. Perry has increasingly cast himself as an outsider and made overhauling Washington a leading priority.

"I think in the end, most of the candidates will raise most of their money away from K Street, partly out of necessity, and partly out of calculation that they don't want to spend a whole lot of time at Washington, D.C., fundraising events," said John Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.

Still, some argue that Romney's
K Street advantage, particularly over Gingrich, points to the erratic former Speaker's political liabilities.

"It will be important as the race narrows to have large groups of people who are deep in their policy knowledge, to bring the case [against] an administration who will have many experienced people on the inside," Malbin said. "When you get past the money, what you see is a potential governing team."

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