Friends and supporters of Governor Mitt Romney have established a political action committee that has lavished more than $250,000 on Republican candidates and county GOP organizations across the nation since July, apparently laying the groundwork for a potential presidential run for the Massachusetts politician in 2008.
The Commonwealth PAC has pumped more than $35,000 into the campaign coffers of Republican candidates for the US House and Senate in 17 states and has created state subsidiaries that have distributed tens of thousands more in four key states: Iowa, South Carolina, Michigan, and Arizona.
Romney's allies insist the donations do not indicate he plans to run for president, but political operatives and lawmakers on the receiving end of the cash say the Massachusetts governor is following the same path of other successful presidential nominees in the past. Other potential candidates for 2008 have also established PACs to distribute money.
''What the governor is doing is smart politics," said Luke Byars, executive director of South Carolina's Republican Party, which hosts the first presidential primary in the South. ''Our motto at the Republican National Convention was, 'We elect presidents.' If you're going to be successful in your run, you have to come through South Carolina."
Funded largely by Romney's former colleagues at the venture capital firm Bain Capital, Commonwealth PAC has quickly established a strong presence in states that are crucial to any presidential hopeful. Romney has made time for appearances in most of those states, too.
For example, Romney is scheduled to speak before the Spartanburg County, S.C., Republican Party on Feb 21, and this spring will be the keynote speaker at the Michigan state Senate's annual dinner. Romney made an appearance at the Arizona Republican state convention last year and traveled to Iowa in October.
Romney's father, George, served from 1963 to 1969 as governor of Michigan, a swing state that narrowly backed Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts in the 2004 presidential election. The PAC has spent $87,000 in Michigan, giving $1,000 to Republican senators, $500 to Republican state representatives, and between $500 to $1,000 on county Republican parties statewide, state campaign finance records show.
The investment could reap handsome rewards, because state lawmakers are often the most involved and capable party activists in the field during presidential elections.
''The name Romney is certainly well respected in Michigan," said state Senator Michelle McManus, a Republican who worked for President Bush's reelection by forming coalitions of Michigan hunters and fishermen.
But McManus, who received $1,000 from Commonwealth PAC, said she was not yet ready to endorse a Romney run for the White House.
''I think that that is really far off into the future," said McManus, who nonetheless referred to Romney as exciting. ''We just elected President Bush, he's got four more years, and I don't look too far out front; 2008 is something that is down the road a little too far."
State Senator Brad Zaun of Iowa, who received $1,000 from Commonwealth PAC during what became the state's most expensive legislative campaign, said he would support Romney for president, regardless of the committee's largesse.
''He just impressed me and not simply because he donated to my campaign," Zaun said. Romney attended a Zaun fund-raiser in the weeks before the presidential election last year.
''I needed the money, and I was glad to take it," Zaun said. ''But I didn't make any promises to him, and he never asked for my support if he ran for president. That was never part of the discussion. But right now, he's at the top of my list of someone I would support for president. He's a Republican, and he got elected in Massachusetts, which is amazing to me."
Commonwealth PAC director Trent Wisecup said the committee is not a sign of Romney's presidential ambitions, but rather evidence that the Massachusetts governor is ''a rising star in the national Republican Party."
''He's taken a leadership role in the party, and he's being called upon increasingly to help out the party nationally, so some people close to him wanted to help the governor, help Republicans across the nation," Wisecup said. ''They thought it would be good to put together this PAC effort to help out the party nationally."
Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's communications director, said the governor has no say in the workings of the PAC.
''Governor Romney is fully aware of the Commonwealth PAC and is supportive of its mission," Fehrnstrom said. ''However, he does not participate in the management decisions of the PAC."
Money for the PAC's donations is mostly coming from Bain executives, as well as Massachusetts Republican Party chairman Darrell Crate and
But strategic direction is provided by DC Navigators, a Washington-based political consulting firm, whose best-known consultant is Mike Murphy. The firm has worked with Senator John McCain of Arizona, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. Wisecup works for DC Navigators in its Detroit office.
The committee is also relying for advice on well-connected groups such as Campaign of One, an Iowa-based political consultancy and grass-roots coordinating firm run by the state's former Republican Party chairman, Brian Kennedy.
Romney has insisted that he will seek reelection next year, but has never ruled out a bid for the White House. His trips outside the state have drawn criticism from Democrats, who contend he is not interested in running the Bay State, a charge he denies. Meantime, he has raised his profile, speaking to the Republican National Convention in New York and later winning the vice chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association in November.
Romney's supporters are hardly alone in trying to curry favor in South Carolina, Iowa, and other states. Other presidential hopefuls, such as former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, US Senate majority leader Bill Frist, and Governor George Pataki of New York have also established PACs or begun bestowing campaign contributions on local party leaders.
Romney appears to be taking a cue from Bush's campaign, which had established deep roots in states like South Carolina, a decision that paid off after McCain pulled an upset victory in the New Hampshire primaries and became a major challenge to Bush.
''People realize after 2000 that South Carolina, that's the ballgame," Byar said. ''If you don't get ahead early, put your team together and know the key grass-roots activists, you just can't play here."