By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican Jeb Bush's impressive fundraising haul, fueled by big-money donations, was the product of a concerted effort to score an early breakthrough that would establish him as the front-runner in a crowded 2016 White House race.
But a campaign finance report filed on Wednesday indicated small donors are not climbing on the Bush bandwagon yet, a potential concern as the former Florida governor tries to build broad-based grassroots support.
Bush, the son and brother of former presidents and one of the most recognized names in U.S. politics, raised $11.4 million in the two weeks between his mid-June campaign launch and the end of the month, but barely 3 percent of the donations were for $200 or less.
About 82 percent of Bush's individual contributions were from donors who gave the legal maximum of $2,700, the report to the Federal Election Commission said.
Bush was not the only 2016 candidate who lagged with small donors, although his challenge was by far the most pronounced. Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton's donations of $200 or less amounted to only 17 percent of the individual contributions to her campaign since her April launch.
By contrast, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders reported more than 76 percent of his donations came from individuals donating less than $200. Among Republicans, 67 percent of neurosurgeon Ben Carson's contributions were for $200 or less, and 61 percent of Senator Rand Paul's donations were for $200 or less.
FAVORITE SON OF BIG MONEY?
Bush's numbers, combined with the previously announced $103 million raised by his allied Super PAC, are likely to enhance his image not only as a formidable leader in the November 2016 race but also as a favorite son of the party's big-money establishment.
"They specifically decided to go after the big bucks now, get it in the bank, then they have plenty of time to go back and get the smaller donors," said Republican strategist Rich Galen, who is not aligned with a candidate.
"When you can come up with an 'oh, wow' number, it freezes the other big donors and tells everyone that Bush is going to be in this thing the whole way," he said.
Bush, who entered the race with a donor network dating to the earlier campaigns by his father and brother, has shown little concern about being portrayed as too close to the rich and powerful.
The Bush campaign hosted a retreat last week at the Maine compound where the family spends its summers to reward those fundraisers, known as bundlers, who had managed to collect maximum $2,700 checks from at least 10 donors.
An online Reuters/Ipsos poll taken between July 11 and 15 showed Bush in second place among self-identified Republican voters, trailing billionaire real estate developer Donald Trump by 22 percent to 13 percent. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was in third place, with 8 percent.
Early fundraising numbers are closely watched as indicators of a candidate's strength and staying power, and Republican strategists said Bush was simply following the quickest path to credibility.
"It's generally been a strategy of the Bushes to raise as much as they can as quickly as possible to establish themselves as the clear fundraising leader and therefore the clear front-runner," said Anthony Corrado, a government professor and campaign finance expert at Colby College in Maine.
"He has a very clear base of donors, so they can hit the ground running and collect maximum checks right from the beginning," he said.
Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign against President Barack Obama, who built a broad email and small donor network, was hurt by an image, fueled in part by his own comments on the campaign trail, that he was too wealthy and out of touch to relate to everyday Americans.
Perhaps to head off similar concerns, Bush's advisers reportedly asked potential donors earlier this year to limit their contributions to his allied Super PAC to a still stunning $1 million.
But some Republicans shrugged off the likelihood that Bush's reliance on big money would be a negative for voters.
"I don't think voters make judgments about candidates based on the size of their average contribution," said Dan Schnur, a former Republican campaign aide to John McCain and now director of a political institute at the University of Southern California.
"You don't develop a sense of inevitability through small donor donations," he said.
The FEC reports offer only a small sliver of the donations flooding into the 2016 presidential race compared with the huge sums being raised by allied Super PACs that report their totals at the end of the month, separately from the campaigns.
Those groups technically are not supposed to work in concert with the candidates but can advertise on their behalf.
(Additional reporting by Grant Smith; Editing by Ken Wills)