WASHINGTON Big Republican donors are still undecided on Rick Perry or Mitt Romney as their party's best chance to defeat President Barack Obama in the November 2012 presidential election.
Only about a third of the Republican campaign cash raised four years ago has been committed so far for the upcoming election -- a sluggish pace that is unlikely to pick up before next year.
"I haven't seen any sort of huge swell of traditional Bush supporters going anywhere yet," said Jan Baran, former general counsel to the Republican National Committee who advised President George H.W. Bush.
The big money remains on the sidelines for a few reasons. There are eight established candidates in the race but the competition between the front-runners -- Texas Governor Perry and former Massachusetts Governor Romney -- is just too close to call.
While there is no question that the donations will eventually start flowing, party insiders have not finished debating whether Perry or Romney is more electable when facing Obama.
Both Perry and Romney are aggressively courting big donors, who will be vital to mounting a national campaign next year and going up against a president who broke fundraising records in 2008.
Despite a faltering economy and slumping popularity, Obama is off to a strong fundraising start. His campaign has raised $47 million, which dwarfs all Republican contenders.
Romney, who has dropped behind Perry in national polls, took in $18 million during the second quarter of the year.
Perry, who entered the race last month, has yet to report fundraising figures. But finance experts expect he will be a formidable rival to Romney after having raised $39 million in his last race for governor in 2010.
One media report said Perry's campaign aimed to raise at least $10 million out of the gate. That comes as Romney's collections are expected to dip to below $10 million in the third quarter, according to a source close to his campaign. The third quarter is a traditionally weak fundraising period.
Still, Perry has ground to make up. Romney's campaign is much more established after a presidential run in 2008 and, as co-founder of buyout firm Bain Capital, he has ties to deep pockets on Wall Street.
PERRY HEADING TO WALL STREET
"Perry is largely unknown, certainly here in New York," said Joe Schmuckler, an investment manager at Medley Capital who was Republican nominee John McCain's treasurer in 2008 and is now backing Romney. "Perry is working hard to put together a network but Romney is way ahead" in the New York area.
Perry hits New York City this month for his first major Wall Street events. He will be hosted by Hank Greenberg, the former long-time chief executive of AIG, the insurance firm that imploded during the 2008 financial crisis.
Perry could benefit from ties to Rudy Giuliani, who Perry endorsed when the former New York mayor ran in the 2008 Republican race. Giuliani has not made an endorsement yet.
Both candidates trek to Washington later this month, where they will woo established Republican donors.
Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors who was finance chair for Giuliani's 2008 White House run, is hosting Perry.
"Several have come on board already and I expect the list to grow rapidly between now and Governor Perry's first Washington event on September 27th," Van Dongen said.
Romney's Washington backers include American Bankers Association President Frank Keating, a former governor of Oklahoma, but he has been having fundraisers for months.
Several major Republican donors have not revealed their preferences yet.
Ken Griffin, chief executive of hedge fund giant Citadel is on the sidelines and early Home Depot Inc investor Ken Langone is also uncommitted.
RELYING ON ROVE
Donors now have more options after the Supreme Court's ruling involving the conservative activist group Citizens United and other legal decisions. The Citizens United decision lets corporations and individuals make unlimited donations to presidential candidates as long as they go through committees not technically associated with the official campaign.
American Crossroads, the big-spending group conceived by Republican strategist Karl Rove, is seen as the perfect depository for the Republican investor who has not made up his mind about a candidate.
"There is no better political investment than putting money in Karl's hands," said a former big fundraiser to President George W. Bush.
Fred Malek, a veteran Republican fundraiser who founded the spending group American Action Network, said donors to some extent have the luxury to wait for a sure thing.
"In the McCain campaign, for example, during the primary we had very difficult time raising money and all of a sudden we became the leader and money flooded in," Malek said.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Eric Johnson; Editing by Bill Trott)