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Obama fundraisers hard at work

His 2012 election campaign staff already is courting big donors from the 2008 race.

By Matea Gold

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

February 6, 2011

WASHINGTON

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President Obama has said he will have plenty of time to campaign for reelection in 2012, but his fledgling campaign team is wasting no time.

Days after leaving his post as White House deputy chief of staff, campaign manager Jim Messina spent the last week hopscotching across the country to hold sessions with prominent donors in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Boston.

His outreach is part of an intense push to rebuild the finance operation that helped Obama raise a record $745 million in 2008. Republican campaign finance lawyers have predicted Obama could top $1billion in 2012.

The donor gatherings come weeks before the campaign is expected to register with the Federal Election Commission and set up a mechanism to accept contributions.

The goal for now is simply to reengage with the party's big financial backers, emphasizing the administration's focus on building the economy.

Obama's likely Republican rivals for the presidency are undergoing the same exercise. On Friday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney held a conference call with more than 300 contributors from his last race to update them on his activities.

Obama aides are keen to lock in the support of well-connected donors who bundled, or collected, contributions for the 2008 campaign -- more than 500 wealthy individuals who together raised at least $75million, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

While many bundlers are already enthusiastic, some said that Obama could not assume that those who played a major role in 2008 will step up again.

"My sense is they will need to work very hard and almost start from scratch in recruiting those people," said Philadelphia education consultant Peter Buttenweiser, who raised at least $500,000 for Obama in 2008.

Buttenweiser said he wanted to hear the campaign's strategy for states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio that lost Democratic governors last year.

"I remain a big supporter of the president, more so in the last eight weeks than in the last two years," he said.

"I think he's turning a corner and becoming ever more effective. But I'm not just going to reach back in until I get a much clearer sense of what the 2012 election will be about."

One key target for the campaign is Los Angeles, where Obama enjoyed strong backing among Hollywood executives such as Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, who each helped raise at least $500,000.

Katzenberg declined to comment on what role he would play in the reelection effort. A representative for Geffen said he was not available to comment.

Obama's aides are also looking to shore up their standing in New York City, which delivered $42 million to Obama in 2008. Some of his Wall Street supporters were later furious when Obama castigated the industry as reluctant to reform and called them "fat cat bankers."

Since then, tempers have notably cooled, according to Democratic fundraisers in touch with hedge fund executives, particularly now that Obama has been making overtures to business leaders.

Still, the reelection campaign has "a tremendous amount of work to do" in winning back Wall Street, said a person who attended a presentation Messina made Thursday in New York at the law firm of Skadden, Arps. The attendee, who did not want to be named because the session was off the record, described participants as supportive but not particularly energized.

In other parts of the country, however, top bundlers said they were itching to get in the race.

"I am supporting him as much or more than I did before," said Miami Beach philanthropist Abigail Pollak, who helped raise at least $500,000 in 2008.

"I'm all for him again, 150%."

Stewart Bainum, chairman of Choice Hotels International, said he and his wife had already volunteered to host a spring fundraiser for Obama at their Chevy Chase, Md., home.

The couple helped bring in at least $500,000 for Obama's first White House bid.

"I'm a big supporter," Bainum said. "Nobody is perfect and the administration has made some mistakes, but their policies and their agenda are very compatible with my values."

San Francisco entrepreneur Wade Randlett, one of Obama's early fundraisers in 2008, predicted: "We will raise more than any presidential campaign in the history of American politics."

A top priority is to cultivate Democrats who backed Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008, he said, noting that the long primary fight that year gave the campaign little time to woo them before the general election.

"Now we have the time and bandwidth to bring them into the fold," Randlett said.

But there will be some major donors the campaign won't be able to count on: Obama appointed more than a dozen of his top bundlers as ambassadors to countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, France and Japan, effectively sidelining them from raising money in 2012.

matea.gold@latimes.com