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By Todd J. Gillman, The Dallas Morning News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Ted Cruz’s ambitions are clear. He’s a frequent visitor to Iowa and New Hampshire. He’s building a campaign staff.

But to make a serious White House bid takes serious money — at least $20 million by the time the first ballots are cast in early 2016. And that could be a challenge.

Although the Texas Republican is popular at conservative gatherings, Cruz has shown only modest success as a fundraiser. Like Ron Paul and Sarah Palin, he can probably count on showers of cash from enthusiastic legions of small-dollar donors, and that’s an important start.

But many major GOP donors and bundlers want nothing to do with a Tea Party agitator — particularly business interests dismayed by the federal-spending brinkmanship Cruz has advocated. That could limit his ability to elbow aside well-funded rivals.

“There are very few people I’ve seen inspire the grassroots like Ted Cruz,” said Eytan Laor, a Miami Republican who runs a political action committee that backed about 100 conservative federal candidates this year. But “he has a rap on him from people who don’t know him — the government shutdown, not electable, et cetera. It’s an issue.”

Much of the party’s donor class is rooting for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or, at the least, waiting to see whether he makes a move.

“The big elephant in the room is Jeb Bush,” said Ray Washburne, a Dallas developer and national finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, who is neutral in the race. “Donors are all waiting to see what Jeb’s move is.”

He added: “You don’t want to be the first mover to Ted Cruz or Rand Paul if Jeb ends up running. Everyone wants to get behind whoever they think is going to win.”

Washburne figures it will take at least $10 million to be viewed as “a legitimate candidate” by the time of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in early 2016. And $20 million would be better. The contest could be over by mid-April, and the nominee likely will be someone who raked in at least $50 million by then, though fundraising tends to snowball for the winner of early contests.

Cruz raised about $15 million in his insurgent Senate run in 2012. That was enough to shove aside Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, with the help of a wave of tea party support in the GOP primary. In the last two years, he’s raised another $3.8 million, plus about $640,000 for a political action committee, the Jobs Growth and Freedom Fund.

Individual donors, as opposed to political committees, account for two-thirds of the revenue.

As an indication of his drawing power, after his overnight Senate talkathon against the Affordable Care Act last year, Cruz raked in more than $200,000 in a single week. And other help is available: Last month, Cruz’s roommate and debate partner from Princeton, David Panton, created a SuperPAC that can raise and spend unlimited sums to support a candidate. The group is called Stand for Principle.

“I would like him to run for president,” Panton said. “We need strong, moral principles conservative leadership in America that I think Ted offers.”

SuperPACs cannot directly coordinate with a candidate or his campaign. But they can aim at the same goals.

“He is someone I have known a long time, and someone I trust implicitly,” Cruz said of Panton, an Atlanta investor.

Maria Zack, an Atlanta-based GOP operative who served as a top aide in Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign, chairs the SuperPAC. Her goal is to raise $50 million by March 2016. The finance committee held its first conference call a week before Thanksgiving.

“We are building a team,” she said. “I don’t think money will be an issue at all. … He is brilliant and he inspires people and our phones will ring off the hook.”

There are other routes to financial success in presidential campaigns, besides direct fundraising. Having a megadonor as a patron is a nice shortcut.

In 2012, Wyoming investor Foster Friess pumped more than $2 million into former Sen. Rick Santorum’s effort. Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate, gave $20 million to a super PAC that backed Gingrich, a former House speaker. Although no donor can give more than a few thousand dollars directly to a campaign, the advent of super PACs means there’s no limit on what an individual can spend on behalf of a candidate or cause.

Adelson has met with Jeb Bush and others. Cruz sat beside him at a pro-Israel dinner last month in New York, and they met privately for two hours the next day. So far, the “Adelson primary” has yielded no endorsement.

After the Adelson meeting, Cruz shared lunch with a small group of other Jewish leaders.

According to the New York Observer, he lamented that donors will rally to “moderate establishment” candidates such as Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and perhaps Mitt Romney, who, in his view, would lose. “A lot of donors will rush to write them checks. And yet if the nominee comes from that bucket, the same voters who stayed home in 2008 and 2012 will stay home again,” Cruz said.

Cruz ally Michael Needham, chief executive of Heritage Action for America, which supports conservative candidates, said the senator is one of many candidates who’ll be able to raise the resources needed.

“I know tons of people who would write checks to Ted Cruz, and that goes from the person who can give a one-dollar bill to people who can write much larger checks,” he said. “Ted has inspired millions of people and will have the support to do whatever he wants to do next.”

Conservative leader Gary Bauer, who sought the GOP nomination in 2000, dismissed the idea that Cruz would be too polarizing. He noted the defeats of Romney and Sen. John McCain in the last two presidential elections.

“They were good men but did not excite the base,” he said. “The only way you can win is if you’re an outspoken conservative.”

Laor, the Florida Republican, met Cruz a few years ago and quickly became a fan. He predicted that Cruz will win over skeptics as he barnstorms the country but said that doesn’t alter his huge disadvantage when it comes to fundraising.

“Jeb Bush definitely has a great political machine,” he said. “He’s got an army of donors and other political operatives that he’s worked with over the years.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr


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