* Priorities USA January fundraising supported by one
* Obama campaign manager raised concerns about PAC money in
* Priorities' strategist says donor enthusiasm lifted in
(Updates with Democratic official's comment, paragraphs 10-11)
By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON, Feb 21 In early January,
President Barack Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina called
David Axelrod, the president's top strategist, into his Chicago
office and started writing on a white board.
On one side of the board, Messina sketched out the amounts
of money he expected Republican "Super PACs" and other groups to
raise and spend to try to defeat the Democratic president in the
Nov. 6 election.
Drawing a line under that cumulative number -- roughly $700
million -- Messina then highlighted the amount raised by the
Republican groups' Democratic counterparts. It was a measly
"We've got to talk about this. This is a problem," Messina
told Axelrod, according to a campaign official.
Roughly a month later, on Feb. 6, the Obama campaign
announced it would start supporting Priorities USA Action, the
struggling Super PAC formed to help Obama. The move reversed a
position rooted in Obama's distaste for the Supreme Court
decision that allowed such independent groups to raise and spend
unlimited amounts of money to try to influence elections.
If there were any lingering questions about why Obama's
campaign changed course, they were answered late on Monday.
Priorities USA raised a paltry $59,000 in January, Federal
Election Commission filings showed, and that amount came almost
entirely from one longtime Obama supporter, John W. Rogers, who
The disappointing figures were a sharp contrast with the
tens of millions of dollars raised by the political action
committees, or PACs, that support Republican presidential
The results reinforced concerns among Obama's advisers that
despite his campaign's fundraising strength, Republican PACs
could help the opposition outspend the president's re-election
efforts this year.
A campaign spokesman declined to comment about the
Priorities USA figures, but one Democratic official familiar
with Super PACs said January was a rough month to fundraise
because Democrats did not have a nominating battle.
"You have to look at it in context," the official said. "If
you don't have a primary, if you don't have a caucus, if there
isn't an urgency there ... people don't really start getting
engaged again until the middle of January."
On Feb. 6, Messina announced that Obama campaign and White
House officials would start appearing at Priorities USA events,
though they would not directly solicit contributions.
However, Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President
Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, would not participate in the Super
Greater involvement by the campaign and the White House has
made a difference in donor enthusiasm, said Bill Burton, a
former White House official who helped found Priorities USA and
is a senior strategist for the group.
"Interest and enthusiasm has increased significantly since
the announcement," he said in an email.
Despite the PAC's financial weakness, the Obama campaign
itself is still a fundraising juggernaut, raising $29.1 million
in January along with the Democratic National Committee and
other allies. It is expected to raise at least as much for the
president's re-election as the $750 million it collected in the
2008 presidential race.
But there are limits to how much the campaign can take in
from big donors.
Individual donations to campaigns are limited to $2,500
during the primary season and another $2,500 for the fall
general campaign. Because of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that
banned limits on fundraising and spending by independent
political groups, Super PACs have no such limit on donations.
Obama opposed that ruling, which erased longstanding limits
on corporate and union money in federal elections.
Obama "believes that this is an unhealthy development in our
political process, but it is a reality of the rules as they
stand," Axelrod said in an interview.
"This was not a quick decision, but he also feels a
responsibility to win this election," Axelrod added. "There's a
lot hanging on this beyond him."
Priorities USA had raised just $4.2 million by the end of
January, only a fraction of that raised by Restore Our Future,
the group supporting Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney, which
had raised $36.8 million by the end of last month.
The figures showed Priorities USA had $1.3 million in cash
on hand at the end of January and no debt.
The PAC's incoming contributions in January averaged less
than $2,000 a day. Without Rogers' $50,000 donation on Jan. 17,
the group would have pulled in less than $10,000 last month.
For full campaign coverage click on
(Additional reporting by Alexander Cohen; Editing by Jackie