By Michelle Conlin
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Donald Trump's presidential campaign is likely to launch a small donor fundraising effort akin to the grassroots one that powered another insurgent presidential contender, Democrat Bernie Sanders, according to two top donors who attended the first official meeting of Trump's national finance team.
The Trump finance machine kickoff took place at New York City's Four Seasons Hotel amid growing concerns about the Republican presidential candidate's lack of a campaign infrastructure heading into a Nov. 8 election battle against presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
"The pitch to this group in the room was a traditional pitch, but the backroom discussion was, because of this being a populist movement, there's going to be significant outreach to, you know, those who give $1, $2, $20," said Trump Texas fundraising co-chairman Gaylord Hughey. "There's a huge opportunity there."
Sanders, who has effectively lost the 2016 presidential nomination to Clinton, broke fundraising records during his long-shot bid for the presidency, collecting more than $210 million through more than 7.4 million individual contributions, averaging $27 apiece.
Trump could well find his supporters eager to pitch in $1, $5 or $20. For a story in May, Reuters found that nearly all three dozen Trump supporters it interviewed were not only unmoved by Trump's about-face to accept money from outside donors, they said they would also happily contribute.
The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment about replicating the fundraising apparatus of Sanders, a democratic socialist U.S. senator from Vermont.
Some donors were fearful of the late start of Thursday's gathering. Normally such a meeting would take place two years earlier in a candidate's campaign. But others in attendance said they left assured that Trump would be able to easily plug into the Republican National Committee's robust infrastructure.
Trump, a wealthy businessman, became the presumptive Republican nominee last month after seeing off 16 rivals in a largely self-funded primary campaign.
The gathering featured talks by Trump, campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, chief strategist Paul Manafort, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, former rival-turned-ally Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and Republican fundraisers Ray Washburne and Lew Eisenberg.
Trump's late start on fundraising has raised questions about whether he can achieve his previously stated aim of raising $1 billion before November. On the Democratic side, Clinton's well-oiled operation is well ahead of schedule.
Trump is alsopulling back from his earlier statements on his fundraising goal. Campaign manager Lewandowski told Reuters on Wednesday that he sees no need for Trump to raise that sum and that Trump may be able to stick to his low-cost style of campaigning.
That includes garnering free media, which is estimated will reach a value of $5 billion by November, according to media analytics firm mediaQuant. That is more than double what Clinton is likely to get, mediaQuant says.
While Trump shot to the top of the Republican race with freewheeling rhetoric, insults of rivals and promises to get tough on issues such as illegal immigration, even his biggest donors say they are discouraged by the candidate's attacks in recent weeks on a Mexican-American judge.
In comments that have been widely condemned, Trump has suggested that U.S. Federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over a case against Trump University, has an inherent bias because of his heritage.
"He needs to stop the campaign infighting, shut up and stop calling an American who was born in Indiana a Mexican," said Texas billionaire Doug Deason.
(Editing by Howard Goller)