WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney is aggressively trying to coax high-dollar donors from the sidelines, offering incentives of special access and recognition to his top fund-raisers, as he plays catch-up to President Obama in the race for money.
Those who contribute $50,000 and join the ranks of “founders’’ will earn a retreat with Romney this summer in California. Romney’s campaign is also crafting several tiers - $100,000, $250,000, and $500,000 - of donors who bundle money from their friends. This layered system tracks one established by George W. Bush in his 2000 and 2004 campaigns to rank his top contributors with such names as “pioneers’’ and “rangers.’’
The efforts are part of a new, intense phase of Romney’s campaign, one in which he has the rare role of financial underdog. During Republican primaries, his most important wins were sealed, in part, because he had the most to spend on television ads and troops on the ground.
Now he is going up against Obama’s vaunted fund-raising operation and wants to close the gap quickly. Romney had $10.1 million in the bank at the end of March, about one-tenth the amount that Obama had. The president raised $53 million last month, about four times Romney’s haul.
“All Republicans sitting on sidelines are now getting engaged,’’ said Mel Sembler, a Florida developer and one of Romney’s top fund-raisers. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for this nominee, now that we know who he is.’’
The general election presents a greater array of fund-raising tools for Romney and his team to use, now that official party committees are firmly behind him and available as vessels for cash.
Instead of being limited to $2,500 contributions for the primary campaign, supporters can now give the “Romney Victory’’ effort a check of up to $75,800.
Campaign and party officials divide that gift into several pots, each with different federal limits: $2,500 for the Romney primary campaign, $2,500 for the general election, and then $30,800 to the Republican National Committee.
The remainder goes in $10,000 chunks to each of four state parties - in Massachusetts, Idaho, Vermont, and Oklahoma. A Romney spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, said those states were chosen because they allow candidates to make unlimited transfers of federal funds to battleground states.
“What Romney wants to do is wait until he has a better idea of where he’s likely to win, and which states he can write off, and then he’ll transfer money to those places,’’ said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit campaign finance watchdog. “He’s got this chessboard with all these different places he’s putting money.’’
Obama has employed a similar system, although his campaign is steering contributions into state parties in swing states, instead of parking it in safe states for later transfer.
Romney’s operation has set a goal of raising $800 million, which includes about $86 million already raised. Of that, the campaign hopes $300 million will come from small donors, collected through direct mail, social media, and contests, such as having supporters bid to sit with Romney and his oldest son, Tagg, at a Red Sox game.
But the bulk of the money - $500 million - would come from a broad network of fund-raisers.
The process is being guided by Spencer Zwick, a longtime Romney confidant who has been his chief conduit to fund-raising since the former Massachusetts governor started seeking the presidency nearly six years ago.
Zwick, who is so close to the Romneys that he has often been called the “sixth son,’’ has a good reputation among the well-heeled fund-raisers. He did not return several messages seeking comment.
Several key Republican fund-raisers are now clambering aboard the Romney effort, including Al Hoffman, a contributor from Florida; John Moran, a retired chairman of a New York-based investment company who was a top fund-raiser for McCain; and Cathy Bailey, a prominent fund-raiser from Kentucky who served as ambassador to Latvia.
“I’m a Johnny-come-lately,’’ said Hoffman, who was a national cochairman for George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns. “There were a lot of people sitting on the sidelines because they were looking for an affair of the heart instead of purpose of the mind.
“I think Romney will be able to secure the support of the Republican base.’’
Moran had relationships with most of the Republican presidential candidates in the primary, but he signed onto Romney’s campaign about six weeks ago. One reason, Moran said, is that he likes a quality that hindered Romney during the primaries.
“He’s a moderate Republican. I like that,’’ Moran said.
Freed from the daily battle of the primary campaign, Romney has scaled back dramatically on his public events, trading town hall meetings and campaign rallies for closed-door fund-raisers in wealthy enclaves around the country.
He rarely travels anywhere now without including a fund-raiser on the itinerary.
This past week alone, he held fund-raisers in Naples and Palm Beach, Fla.; Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C.; Louisville, Ky.; and Phoenix. Ann Romney attended a fund-raiser in New York, hosted by Donald Trump on her birthday. For the occasion, Trump had a cake depicting her, in icing, riding a horse.
Romney will headline a $5,000-per-plate event next week in New Jersey for Senate candidate Joe Kyrillos. On May 2, he’s got a fund-raiser at the Ritz-Carlton in Arlington, Va., that has a number of options for donors, according to a copy of the invitation. Those who raise $2,500 get into a general reception; $10,000 earns a VIP photo reception. There’s also a “policy roundtable’’ on several topics - tax reform policy, global competitiveness, and technology - available to those who raise $20,000 for the general election or give $10,000 to the Romney Victory fund.
Romney’s campaign has declined to release the names of his so-called bundlers, the top-level donors who collect money on his behalf. That has drawn criticism from the Obama camp, which is releasing the identities of his bundlers and accuses Romney of being secretive. In 2008, Senator John McCain also released the names of his bundlers.
Under federal law, Romney has to disclose the names of his bundlers only if they are registered lobbyists. Romney so far has 22 lobbyists who, combined, have raised $2.9 million as bundlers.
Those lobbyists have represented a wide range of interests, including such financial and insurance behemoths as Liberty Mutual, Merrill Lynch, and Citigroup; major technology firms such as Microsoft and Verizon; and other companies such as Coca-Cola, Boeing, and Ford.
One bundler, Ignacio E. Sanchez, collected $120,000 in lobbying fees from Cape Wind from 2004 to 2005, when Romney, then Massachusetts governor, opposed the project. Another bundler, Andrew Wheeler, collected $200,000 in lobbying fees from the Alaska Conservation Foundation in 2001; Romney supports oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Last week, a Romney fund-raiser in Georgia sent an e-mail to supporters describing the fund-raising efforts. The campaign is asking for people to make a $50,000 to become a “Founding Member’’ of the Romney team.
Those donors, the e-mail said, would get yet-to-be-determined special access at the Republican National Convention in Tampa and time with Romney during a “presidential inaugural retreat’’ in late June in California.
“We know there have been a number of people who have been standing on the sidelines waiting for a nominee to be selected,’’ said the e-mail, first reported by the online news site BuzzFeed. “It is now clear who the nominee will be and we will . . . reach out to all those who have yet to give as well as those who previously supported another candidate.’’
Globe correspondent Callum Borchers contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.