WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's re-election campaign and Democratic groups affiliated with it raised $43.6 million in April, a decrease from the previous month despite the start of a robust general election campaign against Republican Mitt Romney.
Ninety-eight percent of the donations were less than $250 in April and the average donation came in at $50.23, campaign manager Jim Messina said in a video released on Twitter.
Although big donations are critical, the campaign highlights its low-dollar donations to illustrate the kind of grass-roots support it hopes will push the president to victory in November.
More than 437,000 people donated last month and 169,500 were first-time donors. Nearly 2 million people had donated to help Obama's re-election as of this week.
The figures include money that went directly to the Obama campaign as well as the Democratic National Committee and other joint fundraising committees. In March, the campaign and its affiliates raised more than $53 million.
The drop in April money-raising occurred even as Obama's opponent in the November 6 election became clear.
Republican Rick Santorum dropped out of the race for his party's nomination, almost guaranteeing that Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, will be the Republican nominee.
Obama's campaign, which had long expected Romney to be the president's opponent, switched quickly into general election mode, but that does not appear to have motivated supporters to increase their giving compared with the previous month.
A campaign official noted that fundraising at the end of the quarter was typically higher than at the beginning, and a Democratic strategist said the number of new donors - 169,500 - was promising.
"That for me is a significant number," said Jonathan Mantz, a finance director for then-Senator Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign.
"You clearly want to continue to raise more than the preceding month, but the ability to get new donors is critical."
Despite expectations the campaign will match or exceed the roughly $750 million Obama raised in the 2008 election cycle, his advisers have been concerned for months about the effect of money raised by Super PACs and other outside groups to influence the race.
Some $57 million had been invested in negative advertising against Obama since October, Messina said.
"One of the most important things we can do is get our arms around the fact: this election is going to be close, given the historic challenges the nation faced when the president first came into office," he said.
"Oil company executives and other special interests are dumping millions of dollars in Super PAC attack ads."
Although lagging behind Obama in fundraising, Romney has strong support from several powerful Super PACs, groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts as long as they do not coordinate with his campaign.
One of the groups, Crossroads GPS, an advocacy non-profit conceived in part by Karl Rove, former aide to President George W. Bush, disclosed a plan on Wednesday to spend $25 million on anti-Obama ads over the next four weeks.
Aside from two recent political rallies, Obama has spent most of his campaign-related events over the past several months raising cash. Republicans have chided the president for spending time fundraising, and appeared to relish in the April decline.
"Barack Obama is still the Fundraiser-In-Chief but even he is struggling to sell the American people on his brand of Hype and Blame that has left millions without jobs, a struggling housing situation and record deficits and debt for future generations," Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said in an emailed statement.
May is likely to be a better month for Obama.
The president said last week he believed same-sex couples should be able to wed. Following that announcement, he held a fundraiser in Los Angeles at the home of actor George Clooney that raised nearly $15 million. An uptick in fundraising from invigorated members of the president's political base would not be reflected in the April figures.
Messina said the campaign had opened field offices across the country and hired more staff in anticipation of a close race.
Going through the campaign's various strategies to reach the 270 state electoral votes needed to win the election, Messina said the campaign had hired 12 new staff members in Colorado - an important swing state - and had new offices in New Mexico and Nevada. He said the campaign was building a "massive operation" in Florida, opening five field offices there last month.
Additional reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Peter Cooney