WASHINGTON — The potential White House candidates need cash.
But donors aren't eager to shell out until the hopeful prove they're credible.
Which they can't — until they have the cash lined up to start their campaigns.
This helps explain why the 2012 Republican primary race has yet to begin in earnest.
"It's a little sluggish. The major donor folks are sitting back a bit," said Rob Bickhart, a former Republican National Committee finance chairman helping ex-Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
"The major donor folks, I think, are a little slower getting started because the whole process was slower to get started," said Bickhart, who helped raise money for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney four years ago. "The last one started, it seemed, after World War I and folks were just exhausted."
Less than a year before the lead-off primaries and caucuses, many of the Republican Party's biggest fundraisers aren't aligned with any one candidate. Mindful of the lessons of 2008, many are holding back to see who emerges as a front-runner in a field that lacks one.
"I have spoken to just about everyone," said Larry Bathgate, RNC finance chairman under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Bathgate isn't sold on a 2012 candidate yet.
"The general gist is, 'We have to get rid of Obama ... he's too leftist and out of touch,'" Bathgate said.
He agrees. But that doesn't mean he's ready to open his vast network of donors to a candidate right now. None has convinced him that he or she can run a successful national campaign.
Four years ago at this point in the campaign, Republicans hoping to succeed President George W. Bush were on the road in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Their fundraisers were burning up phone lines to pay for the frequent trips.
Not this time.
All-but-certain candidates Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty have lined up pieces of their fundraising teams; others are moving more slowly. None is eager to start spending cash.
They remember what happened in 2008.
Arizona Sen. John McCain spent heavily in the early days of his campaign and then went into the summer broke, relying on volunteers to shuttle him from town hall to town hall. It limited what his advisers could plan and resulted in a strategy overhaul, returning to a grassroots-focused effort that ultimately won him the nomination.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee wasn't so lucky. He won the Iowa caucuses but was cash poor. Poised to harness that momentum, he found himself on the phone with supporters, asking for money instead of talking with voters.
That has left him skittish about jumping into the 2012 campaign and starting to spend. Instead, he's looking at a delayed entry, perhaps as late as fall.
"If you can concentrate it to fewer months, you have more money to air campaign ads and less money spent on overhead and office space," Huckabee said.
Those lessons are coloring discussions among donors about which candidate is laying the right groundwork for a protracted primary fight and a costly contest against Obama. In conversations, the candidates and their allies are emphasizing how Obama could be defeated — if the donors ante up.
"The key is the economy. It's still the Clinton thing. The Republican candidate will have to run on a jobs platform," said Lew Eisenberg, one of the party's top money men who's supporting Romney because of his economic message.
"It's one of the overriding reasons I'm with Mitt. There's nobody at the moment who has actually created jobs in the private sector or run a state in a positive way as Mitt has done."
But even some donors already supporting candidates aren't entirely convinced.
"It's an open field," said Mel Sembler, a real estate mogul and former RNC finance chairman.
Romney "is out lining up his supporters around the country. He'll be formidable, but that doesn't mean he's walking away with this thing," Sembler said days before hosting Romney at his Florida home.
There are also the rewards, which Sembler knows well. President George H.W. Bush named Sembler as ambassador to Australia after he raised millions for Bush's campaign. Sembler raised millions for the younger Bush, and a posting as ambassador to Italy followed.
Early financial backers — of both parties — are often given plum posts.3 comments on this story
John Roos, a California technology lawyer and campaign fundraiser, went to Tokyo as the U.S. ambassador. Before leaving, he collected at least $500,000 for Obama's campaign. Same for Charles Rivkin, Obama's ambassador to Paris. The former financial analyst at Salomon Brothers raised more than $500,000 for Obama.
Such roles are never promised, but it's part of the thinking for many donors.
They also consider how viable these candidates are. They ask questions about campaign structure and staff, about fundraising schedules and the amount of time the candidates are willing to spend on the phone, asking for money themselves.
They're not going to promise their own cash and ask their buddies to do the same without some assurances.