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Targets set high for Obama reelection

Bid is launched; could top $1b

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By Donovan Slack and Theo Emery
Globe Staff / April 5, 2011

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WASHINGTON — President Obama officially kicked off his reelection bid yesterday, launching what analysts expect will end up being the most expensive political campaign in history and one that will probably rely on donors with deep pockets.

Obama set the spending record, $760 million for the primary and general elections, in 2008. His outlay for 2012 is expected to surpass that benchmark and top $1 billion, even though he is unlikely to face a formidable primary opponent.

In an e-mail message to supporters, the president said his campaign will be “coordinating millions of one-on-one conversations between supporters across every single state, reconnecting old friends, inspiring new ones to join the cause, and readying ourselves for next year’s fight.’’

Analysts say that mobilization will have to extend well beyond the grass-roots level the president envisions and embrace big-money donors as well. In Obama’s campaign for the presidency in 2008, tens of thousands of small-time donors flocked to his campaign, attracted by his message and his position as an outsider.

Now, as an incumbent, he will find it harder to cultivate such enthusiasm.

“Governance is different from campaigning and people are a little less excited than they were about Obama in ‘07,’’ said F. Christopher Arterton, a professor of political management at George Washington University who has been a Democratic consultant.

The amount spent on presidential elections by all candidates has soared in the past two decades, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign spending, and the trend is expected to continue, or accelerate.

The 2012 presidential election will be the first since the Supreme Court unshackled corporate and union expenditures in elections, meaning an unprecedented amount of money will be spent by outside groups, in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars from the candidates themselves. The court decision, Citizens United v. the FEC, allowed companies and unions to spend unlimited amounts opposing or supporting candidates.

During last year’s midterm elections, conservative groups favoring GOP candidates spent $190 million, compared with $93 million from liberal groups favoring Democrats, according to the center.

Arterton said that corporations will probably be more influential because they outnumber unions and generally have more resources.

“There’s no doubt that if business decides to get involved in a major way, that side can put together substantially more money than labor ever could,’’ he said.

Some election observers said that unprecedented levels of influence for corporations and labor unions could drown out the voices of average Americans.

“We think that it’s a recipe for disaster,’’ said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for Common Cause, a nonpartisan government watchdog based in Washington.

The group yesterday took the president to task for not aggressively pushing for a measure that would fix the public financing system for presidential elections to help level the playing field. In a letter to Obama, the group’s president, Bob Edgar, called on him to display “moral leadership’’ by asking outside groups that support him to renounce contributions from unions and companies and to disclose all donors.

“In the months ahead, we’ll be calling on every candidate for president, the House, and the Senate, to take these and other steps to put voters back in charge of our elections,’’ Edgar wrote.

A White House spokesman referred questions about the letter and the president’s fund-raising efforts to the Democratic National Committee, which declined to comment, saying the president’s announcement speaks for itself.

The president launched his campaign with an online video and an e-mail message saying that he intended to file paperwork with the Federal Election Commission launching his campaign. The video depicts several supporters from around the country talking about Obama and the need to help him win reelection so he can finish what he started.

In the message, the president said he was kicking off his campaign so early — some 19 months before the general election — because it will take that long to build the kind of grass-roots campaign organization he wants.

“We’re doing this now because the politics we believe in does not start with expensive TV ads or extravaganzas, but with you — with people organizing block-by-block, talking to neighbors, co-workers, and friends. And that kind of campaign takes time to build,’’ he wrote.

Michael Murphy, a longtime GOP political strategist who managed John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, lashed out at the president, calling him a “shameless fund-raiser, with no interest in curbing political money at all.’’

The high bar set by Obama will require Republicans to work hard to keep pace, said Jennifer Duffy , senior political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, adding that the effort will be complicated by the amount of money a nominee must spend just to make it through the primaries. Duffy says that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is in a good position to meet that challenge.

“I think that he is definitely in the top three in his ability to fund-raise,’’ she said.

Duffy also noted the unexpected fund-raising prowess of Tea Party favorite Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.

Bachmann raised $2.2 million in the first three months of the year through her congressional campaign and her political action committee. Romney raised $1.9 million through his Free and Strong political action committee.

“It looks like Bachmann is going to surprise us,’’ she said.

Howard Dean, onetime presidential candidate and former Democratic National Committee chairman, predicted that “both parties will raise huge amounts.’’ When outside spending is included, Republicans could outraise Democrats, he said.

The key for Obama, Dean said, will be building upon his efforts to raise vast amounts of money through online donations, which allows a candidate to quickly raise tens of millions of dollars through small donations across a vast network.

Joseph Sandler, a former general counsel for the Democratic National Committee who represents Democratic state committees, said there’s a good possibility both candidates in the general election will opt out of public financing, as President Obama did in 2008, because it limits their ability to raise money. He said that’s a sign the campaign finance system is broken.

“Talk about an arms race,’’ he said.

Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com, Emery at temery@globe.com. Follow them on Twitter @DonovanSlack and @temery.