WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mitt Romney's presidential campaign significantly outpaced President Barack Obama in fundraising last month, a sign that the challenger could at least match the incumbent in the overall race for campaign cash.
Romney and Republican groups raised more than $76.8 million in May, his campaign said on Thursday, topping the more than $60 million Obama and his Democratic allies collected in the scramble for the cash that will fuel the campaigns through the November 6 election.
Both campaigns reported their best monthly showing yet in fundraising totals, which include money raised by campaigns plus funds raised by their respective party's national committees.
Obama's advisers are concerned that his campaign fundraising advantage as a sitting president is being undercut by huge sums being raised by conservative outside groups that have vowed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on ads attacking his record.
The numbers announced on Thursday do not include funds raised by those outside groups, known as "Super PACs," or political action committees.
"We are encouraged by the financial support from a broad range of voters. It is clear that people aren't willing to buy into 'hope and change' again," said Romney national finance chairman Spencer Zwick, referring to Obama's campaign slogan in 2008. "Voters are making an investment because they believe that it will benefit the country."
The Romney and Republican fundraising numbers were reported hours after Obama and his Democratic allies announced they had hauled in more than $60 million for his re-election campaign in May - a jump from the $43.6 million they raised in April.
But Romney leapt even higher in May, the first full month he campaigned as the presumptive Republican nominee. In April, Romney raised almost as much as Obama, taking in $40.1 million for his campaign and the Republican National Committee.
The May numbers came in after Tuesday's vote in Wisconsin in which Republican Governor Scott Walker survived a recall election that was the result of his efforts to strip the state's public workers of their collective-bargaining rights.
The Wisconsin vote was closely watched by both parties. It tested the influence of typically Democratic unions against a growing conservative movement aided by tens of millions of dollars in donations from outside Wisconsin.
Walker's victory signaled that Democratic fundraising and campaign organizing could face a big challenge in matching Republicans' financial firepower in the fall election.
Obama's campaign announced the new figures on Twitter on Thursday, then held a conference call with reporters to play down Romney's strong showing in fundraising.
Ben LaBolt, spokesman for the Obama campaign, tweeted that it was common for "newly minted nominees" such as Romney to get a big bump in donations.
"We knew this day would come," LaBolt said in the conference call. "The (Republican National Committee) and the Romney campaign just established their joint committee, which means that all the primary donors who had written the maximum contribution during the primary can now go back and make that same contribution for the general election," LaBolt said, referring to federal contribution limits on campaigns.
"So we anticipated they would beat us this month."
Romney went through a heated and draining Republican primary season until his main opponents withdrew by April. He had been lagging behind Obama's fundraising until April, when he joined forces with the national Republican Party.
LaBolt said Romney's strong showing should bring out more supporters for Obama.
"That should serve as a clarion call to our supporters and our donors to give now and give again so that not only can we be on the air, but can we build the largest grass-roots campaign in history across the country," he said.
The campaign lost no time in urging supporters to give more. Campaign manager Jim Messina sent out an email with the subject line "We got beat" asking for help in closing the gap with the Republicans.
Obama and Romney are both on a swing this week to raise even more money. In a two-day trip to Texas, Romney brought in about $15 million. Obama headed to California for a two-day tour - including a Beverly Hills gala and an event in San Francisco - that should bring in a total of about $5 million.
At a gathering of about 300 supporters at an outdoor event in Los Angeles, Obama said he was braced for a close election because of the tough economic climate.
Saying he was concerned about Super PAC attack ads, Obama said they could be effective by "tapping into people's frustrations at a very difficult period in our history."
After two days of fundraising, both candidates returned to policy issues. Romney, a former private equity executive, blamed Obama for not understanding the critical role the U.S. free-enterprise system had in creating jobs.
"The president and his team would like us to believe that somehow it's the fault of the free market that things haven't gone right," Romney said in St. Louis. "That's just another way of saying that it's your fault, and not theirs, that the real recovery hasn't yet arrived," he said.
He did not mention his record at Bain Capital, a private equity firm that bought and restructured companies, sometimes resulting in a loss of jobs. Obama's forces have painted Romney as a heartless corporate raider who put profits ahead of jobs for the middle class.
Republicans have seized on Obama's fundraising trips - which will continue next week with actress Sarah Jessica Parker and Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour in New York - to criticize the president for traveling to raise money from rich Hollywood supporters while regular Americans are suffering without jobs.
But Democrats said his fundraising schedule is vital to counter a big advantage Republicans are expected to have from money raised by outside groups that can be used for attack ads.
This year's election marks a sharp contrast from 2008, when Obama raised a record $748.6 million - far outpacing his Republican rival John McCain who was limited because he accepted public financing. McCain raised about $238 million and received $84 million in public financing.
Strategists said the latest numbers showed it was going to be a constant race for dollars until November.
"Republicans are hungry," said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. "They want to win and it's clear they will have enough money to make it a tough fight for the president. The GOP is going to need every dime to convince Americans that what we need now is someone who is an expert at helping the rich get richer."
Republican strategists said the May figures showed conservatives were uniting behind Romney.
"Romney's impressive numbers indicate he will have the financial support to compete against the president both on the air and with get-out-the-vote efforts," said Republican strategist Ron Christie.
Romney's campaign and the Republican National Committee have $107 million in cash on hand, the campaign said. Obama's cash on hand figure was not immediately available.
In releasing a summary - but not all the details - of its May fundraising numbers, the Obama campaign highlighted the large number of people who made small contributions, which contrasts to Romney's big-dollar donors.
More than 572,000 people contributed last month to the Obama campaign and Democratic groups, and more than 147,000 of them were first-time donors, the president's campaign said. Obama's team said 98 percent of the donations last month were for less than $250. The average donation was $54.94, it added.
Romney's campaign said 93 percent of all donations - from more than 297,000 people - in May were $250 or less. The campaign said contributions came from all 50 states.
Republican officials said they did not think Obama's announcement that he supported gay marriage had a dramatic effect on May fundraising numbers, noting that Obama - not Romney - used the decision in appeals to raise money.
"People are contributing to us because they are tired of the president's economic policies," said RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland in St. Louis, Caren Bohan in Los Angeles and Patricia Zengerle, Andy Sullivan and Alexander Cohen in Washington; Editing by David Lindsey and Todd Eastham