Strategists expect fewer candidates as economy crimps funds

Pity the political candidate who tries to separate hard-working Americans from their money in the middle of a recession.

Fundraising for the 2010 election is just getting under way, but already there are signs that the tough economic climate is scaring off potential contenders and favoring candidates who can pay their own way.

Campaign strategists say the fundraising model pioneered by former President George W. Bush -- a circle of deep-pocketed supporters collecting big checks from clients and friends -- is giving way to the wider, technology-driven net of small donors built by President Barack Obama. Many candidates are going to have to adjust, they say.

''The year 2009 is going to have a sobering effect on a lot of political careers,'' said Al Cardenas, former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. "I think the number of candidates will be cut in half months from now, as people find out they can't raise any money.''

Since Republican Mel Martinez announced two months ago that he would step down in 2010, leaving a hallowed Senate seat up for grabs, more potential candidates have bowed out than waded in. Their reasons vary, but supporters point to the challenge of raising $10 million or $20 million in a state that ranks near the top in lost jobs and home foreclosures.

Seeking a head start, Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami jumped into the race three weeks ago and booked a marquee name -- former President Bill Clinton -- for his first fundraiser last Friday. Before the event, which raised about $300,000, lobbyist and political consultant Al Maloof said the economic downturn was tempering enthusiasm among some donors.

''I've gotten numerous return calls from people who said they have to wait on the sidelines until things get better with business,'' said Maloof, who collected checks on Meek's behalf. ``I've also had two potential candidates call me and decide after our conversations that the time was not right to jump into a major statewide race that would take $10 [million] to $15 million to pull off.''

The real estate industry, which has fueled political campaigns in an ever-booming state for decades, has been particularly hard hit. So have bankers and retailers.

''When you're letting people go, it's hard to give away money that's not primary to your business,'' said Miami developer Jorge Perez. ``When I ask my subcontractors to give money, half of them are unemployed.''

The Senate primary is 19 long months away, but political circles will judge each candidate's viability much sooner, when the first fundraising reports are posted on April 15.

The clock is ticking even faster for candidates in Broward and Miami-Dade cities who are on the ballot in the spring.

''I've had to collect money in smaller amounts than I did previously -- I'll be honest with you -- because everyone is broke,'' said former Deerfield Beach Mayor Jean Robb, who put $10,000 of her own money into a campaign for her old job.

"I've gotten a little more squeamish. If they haven't contributed, I don't bother them because I figure they have good reason.''

Some candidates are also having trouble juggling the rigors of a campaign with their own financial worries. Omar Pasalodos said he had to abandon his months-long campaign against Coral Gables Commissioner Maria Anderson so his medical consulting firm could take on a new client.

''I have a love for my city of Coral Gables and I thought I could help make a change, but because of the downtown in the economy, it made a lot of sense for me not to pass this opportunity,'' he said. "Had I been on firmer financial footing, I could have gone on with the race.''

Candidates who are staying in the game are taking a cue from President Obama, who successfully corralled smaller donations from the largest pool of contributors in American history. Just an hour after state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach announced his U.S. Senate campaign last Tuesday, his campaign e-mailed potential donors to set up fundraising accounts on a website known for amassing smaller donations.

But many donors are simply worn out after a record-shattering presidential election. ''The Internet can make donating more convenient in this economic climate, but burnout is another thing,'' Gelber said. ``It's hard for donors to get up and start running again.''

No wonder the Senate race is under consideration by two Republicans from southwest Florida who would face less fundraising pressures. U.S. Rep. Connie Mack is a familiar name to many voters statewide, thanks to his father's service in the Senate, while U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan can afford to dip into his own pockets. Buchanan plowed more than $6 million of his own money into his two previous campaigns.

Another member of Congress thinking about the Senate, Ron Klein of Boca Raton, already has nearly $1.6 million socked away from previous campaigns. Mack has $500,000 left over.

The most well-known potential Senate contenders -- former Gov. Jeb Bush, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Attorney General Bill McCollum -- have stepped aside, creating the likelihood of a lesser-known field unlikely to raise as much money. In a primary without a runoff, a candidate from a densely populated region like South Florida or Tampa Bay could win despite a lightweight campaign account.

''This is a race someone could come in and steal,'' said Republican fundraiser Brian Ballard, a Tallahassee lobbyist. ``It hasn't shaken out the way everybody thought.''