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Associated Press
Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, talk with another customer while shopping for "Toys For Tots" in Concord, N.H. toy store.
He may be doing it with dollars but it gets him to the same level playing field as any conservative who has come up through the ranks.

WASHINGTON — In the Republican primary struggle to define the most reliably conservative presidential candidate, Mitt Romney has put his money where his mouth is. Over the past six years and two presidential campaigns, Romney has donated at least $260,000 from his family charity foundation to GOP causes and influential conservative groups that could deepen his ties within the party and establish his credibility on the right.

Romney's campaign said there was no hidden motivation behind his contributions.

Romney gave $100,000 last year to the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, according to tax records of the Tyler Charitable Foundation, a multimillion dollar Boston-based charity headed by Romney and his wife, Ann. The former president has said publicly he will not endorse any candidate in the Republican primary, but the Romney campaign is studded with former Bush political veterans and appears to lead its rivals in financial support from former Bush fundraisers.

In 2008, Romney gave $25,000 to The Becket Fund, a religious rights legal aid group that is suing the Obama administration on behalf of a North Carolina Catholic college over federal rules requiring employer health plans to cover contraceptives and other birth control. Romney has also contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Massachusetts conservative groups and to core Washington-based conservative think-tanks and publications, among them the Heritage Foundation research institute, the Federal Society legal interest group and a gala dinner for the National Review magazine website.

Romney's gifts came with no strings attached, according to many of the groups, and the Romney campaign says the former Massachusetts governor was simply aiding well-established organizations. GOP strategists and other campaign observers say the moves are smart politics for a candidate trying to establish his conservative bona fides and who has scorned his latest rival, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, as an "unreliable conservative."

But some caution that Romney's gift giving could raise questions inside the party about whether he is trying to use his vast personal wealth to buy support on the right.

"He knows he's not looked at as coming from the trenches of the conservative movement, so this is his way of making an appeal," GOP consultant Greg Mueller said. "The question is how it will play among the conservative faithful."

A Romney campaign spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, said the candidate's donations were made with no "hint of a quid pro quo." She called the groups "public charities with worthy missions."

Officials at the Bush library would not discuss details of Romney's donation. Bush's spokesman, Freddy Ford, waved off any speculation about Romney's political motivation. "The former president is going to support whoever the Republican nominee is, but as he's said, he doesn't want to wade into the swamp" during the primaries, Ford said.

Romney may not expect an early endorsement, but his campaign has already benefitted from Bush's top talent. Romney's campaign strategists, Stu Stevens and Russell Schriefer, worked with the Bush-Cheney team in 2000 and 2004, and his campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, was Bush's research director in the 2004 race.

Washington lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg, who represented Bush during the 2000 recount, is a senior adviser, and numerous other former Bush staffers are on the Romney team.

Romney's campaign finance team has also out-dueled Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other rivals to win the favor of top Bush fundraisers, known as "Pioneers" and "Rangers," who gave in excess of $100,000 in past presidential campaigns. The Houston Chronicle reported that Romney's former Bush supporters had raised $350,000 compared to Perry's $213,000 by late fall.

In recent weeks, as Gingrich's star rose, Romney questioned his conservative credentials, citing his consulting work for mortgage lending giant Freddie Mac. Gingrich responded by slamming the role of Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney once headed, in mass layoffs at some firms under its control.

Gingrich's own private charity, the Center for Health Transformation, has donated at least $167,000 since 2005 to traditional charities — ranging from $10,000 to Red Cross relief for Hurricane Katrina victims to $3,000 to the Winn Feline Foundation, a group promoting cat health. But Gingrich made no contributions to conservative groups — which Gingrich supporters say reflects his status as a lifelong conservative.

Gingrich's spokesman, R.C. Hammond, declined to comment on Romney's gifts to conservative groups, but was quick to stress Gingrich's pedigree on the right. "Every notable Republican achievement of recent years has either been driven by Newt or has his fingerprints on it," he said.

With a short history as a conservative political figure, Romney's largess to conservative causes is "definitely a smart move," said Bill Dal Col, former campaign manager for businessman Steve Forbes' two presidential tries. "He may be doing it with dollars but it gets him to the same level playing field as any conservative who has come up through the ranks."