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12.15.11

Are Romney's Top Donors Losing Faith?

Romney raised more than $1 million in one day in Manhattan, but do top donors still have faith? Plus, Michelle Cottle on Romney's lame efforts to identify with poor people and join Howard Kurtz and John Avlon for a live chat about tonight's GOP debate.

With Mitt Romney’s campaign reeling from a week of sinking poll numbers, rough media coverage, and fallout from a $10,000 gaffe, the financial-wizard-turned-presidential candidate marched across Manhattan on Wednesday making perhaps the most pivotal pitch of his career.

The objective: Convince his top fundraisers on Wall Street that his campaign isn’t collapsing—and then squeeze as much cash out of them as possible.

In a full-on fundraising blitz, Romney hit three hyper-exclusive events crawling with wealthy bankers and business people who have donated heavily to his now-struggling campaign. Over the course of the day—which included a breakfast at swanky club Cipriani, a luncheon at the Waldorf-Astoria, and a private evening get-together on Park Avenue—the candidate hobnobbed with the likes of hedge-fund billionaire John Paulson, Jets owner Woody Johnson, J.P. Morgan Chase Vice Chairman Jimmy Lee, and Blackstone founder Steve Schwarzman.

These tend to be Romney’s most stalwart supporters: high-powered finance types who can relate to the candidate’s background in private equity, and who trust his pro-business agenda. But they’re also people who expect a certain return on investment—and with Newt Gingrich currently surging in the polls, Romney’s nomination is hardly a sure bet.

To assure them his candidacy wasn’t in free fall, supporters present tell The Daily Beast, Romney exhibited a new air of tenacity and grit that has been largely absent from his campaign persona thus far. Apparently it paid off: According to one high-profile fundraiser, the breakfast alone raised an estimated $500,000, and Romney probably scooped up more than a million bucks on his day in Manhattan.

The candidate’s speech to the jam-packed room at Cipriani’s lacked his trademark “silky-smooth” oratory, says former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, who co-hosted the event. But what replaced it was much better.

Donors seem to have resigned themselves to a long, expensive nomination race.

“He was very, very good. You know, slightly different than before,” says Weld. “He seemed more determined than eloquent. He wasn’t fancy; it was a fullback blowing through the line. It sounded like Woody Hayes football, 30-yard line, and a cloud of dust.”

For the less sports-savvy, Woody Hayes was the feisty Ohio State football head coach who famously came off the sidelines during the 1978 Gator Bowl to throw a punch at an opposing player—maybe not the most desired role model for a would-be president, but Weld for one seemed comforted by Romney’s new-found aggressiveness.

“It seems like he’s scrambling, and I think that’s a good thing,” says Weld.

Rick Lazio, a former Long Island congressman and co-chair of the breakfast, also noticed a reinvigorated Romney. He said the candidate was “energized,” seeming to enjoy working the crowd, and betraying none of the exhaustion he must feel from crisscrossing the country and hosting multiple campaign events every day. “Mitt is a sunny person,” Lazio said.

As for the deep-pocketed supporters at the breakfast, Lazio described the mood as one of jaw-clenched resolution, if not celebration. Donors seem to have resigned themselves to a long, expensive nomination race.

“Everybody wishes Mitt had a commanding lead right now, but nobody’s pointing fingers, saying, ‘Why isn’t he doing this and why isn’t he doing that?’” he said, adding, “My sense is this campaign is going to be a full process. Nobody’s going to win as the heir apparent. It’s important to note that after the first two or three caucuses and primaries, only about 12 convention delegates will be selected.”

Lazio says it’s abundantly clear to Romney’s top donors that their candidate is alone in having the money and organization to sustain a lengthy battle. “Romney is by far in the best position to prevail,” said Lazio. “No other person except for Gingrich is a serious challenger for the nomination.”

When it comes to Romney’s chief primary rival, Weld insists “we all like Gingrich a lot,” and says he doesn’t anticipate the former speaker to suffer an epic campaign meltdown like some pundits have predicted. Rather, he thinks Gingrich will experience a slow bleed as Republicans come to realize that Romney is the most electable candidate.

“I don’t think Newt is going to blow up,” Weld said. “I think some people are going to eventually ask themselves, ‘Does he run too right, does he burn too hot to be someone who could be seriously considered to become the president of the United States?’”

According to sources present at the fundraising events, Romney has raised more than $10 million in the tri-state area so far in the race—a statistic used by supporters to underscore his impressive campaign infrastructure, and by critics to cast him as a Gordon Gekko who lives off the funds of greedy finance types. Of course, President Obama is no slouch when it comes to Wall Street fundraising, but such associations are more resonant for the candidate who has been cast as the cold-hearted capitalist.

Apparently this isn’t lost on the Democrats. As Romney battled for his political life Wednesday, the DNC hired a pilot to fly over the Hudson River with a 175-foot banner that read, “Bet You 10K Romney’s Out of Touch—Mitts10KBet.com.”

Lloyd Grove contributed to this story.