WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Foster Friess, the wealthy investor who is fueling Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign, is enjoying his new-found fame.
“I am. You know why? I have a huge ego,” Friess joked in an interview with Reuters.
Friess is in Washington this week for his political coming out party.
On Friday morning, the 71-year-old will formally introduce Santorum at an annual CPAC convention of thousands of conservatives, where rivals for the Republican nomination to face Democrat Barack Obama in the November election will speak.
The spotlight is suddenly on Friess after Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, scored upset wins in three Republican nominating contests this week to push himself back into contention in the state-by-state contest.
With gifts of $381,000 to independent fundraising organizations, Friess is Santorum’s main backer and one of the most public of the wealthy men and women footing much of the bill for the 2012 presidential campaign through Super PAC organizations.
A devout Christian whose website is laced with Biblical quotations, he brings an aw-shucks grin to interviews and tries to disarm people with a cornball joke or a rehearsed story.
On Thursday afternoon, Friess was in the back of a town car headed for the U.S. Capitol to meet with Arizona Senator Jon Kyl “Just a pal. Just a friend,” Friess said.
He wields colorful language when talking of his worries about federal overreach and dependency on welfare, themes he shares with many conservative Republicans.
“Obama is King George III in spades,” he said, referring to the British 18th century monarch rejected by American colonists,
and his reputation as an overbearing ruler.
Friess had no hesitation in bringing the Mormon Church, of which the Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney is a member, into an attack on abuse of welfare benefits, suggesting, without explanation, that “little Mormon gals” were getting pregnant with rich men and taking welfare to pay for their babies.
He seemed to be saying this was as much a factor in the breakdown of society than a spin-off of Mormonism: “It’s not just because they are in the Mormon Church. It’s what has happened in America where typically Mormons would never ever take welfare - ever.”
Other candidates and their backers have generally avoided overt attacks on Mormonism, aware of the risk of trespassing on the widely respected right to freedom of religious belief.
Friess founded Friess Associates, an investment company that amassed $15.7 billion in assets, before selling his majority share of the company in 2001.
He defended Santorum against charges that the strict social conservative agenda espoused by former Senator, a Catholic who strongly opposes abortion, is intolerant.
“You have a bunch of gay guys or gals throw condoms at 14-year-old Catholic girls. Is that tolerance?” Friess said.
His remark appeared to be a reference to an incident in Rhode Island in January when protestors were said to have thrown condoms at Catholic schoolgirls at an anti-abortion rally.
Friess prides himself on his charitable work which has brought the Jackson Hole, Wyoming resident to Haiti and Malawi. In 2010, Friess and his wife Lynn celebrated their 70th birthday by giving away $7.7 million to charities supported by friends.
“I look at these guys who have never met me. They cast me as this evil person. They have no idea how many water purification units I have put in or how many mobile medical units or what I’ve done with my money,” Friess said.
Friess wore the kind of grey sweater vest that has become the trademark look of Santorum. A beige Resistol cowboy hat sat on his lap. Tucked inside was his business card, which includes a picture of Friess on his favorite horse, Granite.
On Tuesday night, cameras showed a beaming Friess standing next to Santorum after his victories in the Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado Republican nominating contests.
The image raised eyebrows, as candidates often try to distance themselves from Super PACs, best known for funding attack ads on rivals. Under law, campaigns cannot coordinate strategy with Super PACs.
As the main funder of the Red, White, and Blue fund, the pro-Santorum Super PAC, Friess’s new prominence may overstate his influence.
Last year, the Super PAC raised some $730,000 - less than any of its main rivals. A dozen donors have contributed more than that total to the pro-Romney Super PAC, which in 2011 raised $30.2 million. Compared to Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino mogul who, with his wife, has given $10 million to support Newt Gingrich, Friess’s largesse starts to look small.
Still, Friess has stuck closer to his candidate than any other major donors this cycle.
The pair have known each other for 16 years. Asked on Thursday what he disagrees with Santorum on, Friess said nothing for 37 seconds. “Maybe I better go tell him first before I tell the press,” he said.
Additional reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Alistair Bell, Martin Howell, Alix Freedman and David Storey