Three years before the next presidential election, several prospective Republican White House contenders are quietly courting senior members of Mitt Romney's money machine.
For the candidates, Romney's team represents a well-connected group of influential donors who can quickly generate -- or divert elsewhere -- the financial resources that have become the lifeblood of modern presidential politics. The former Republican presidential nominee had questionable political skills, but his fundraising operation was considered an overwhelming success.
And Romney's fundraising lieutenants -- some new to national politics and others well-entrenched political players -- are beginning to look for a new home as the potential field of Republican presidential candidates grows. Some caution against reading too much into their early contact with candidates, but acknowledge that it's never too early to begin strengthening relationships with major donors.
"We built an interesting network of people. A lot of them would be inclined to get involved again," Romney finance chairman Spencer Zwick said in a recent interview. "I would love to be heavily involved."
But expect the donors to be selective. Romney himself suggests that only one -- "or perhaps two" -- of the growing crop of Republicans is electable. And his top donors, at least for now, tend to agree.
Interviews with more than a dozen senior donors suggest that the men and women who generated hundreds of millions of dollars for Romney's 2012 presidential campaign represent the more pragmatic wing of the Republican Party -- a group likely to shy away from candidates driven by rigid conservative ideology. But few donors have committed to a contender this early. And Republican heavyweights across the political spectrum are aggressively seeking face time with Romney donors at presidential "cattle call" events around the country and in get-to-know-you meetings in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and elsewhere.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently met privately with Zwick in Boston, while several possible 2016ers have courted Charlie Spies, who created the super PAC devoted to Romney's 2012 presidential bid.
Spies' group alone raised more than $150 million, while Romney's campaign collected $446 million, shattering the previous fundraising record by a Republican presidential candidate.
"I've had multiple conversations with people who may consider running," Spies said while downplaying his focus on the next presidential contest ahead of the 2014 midterms.
Half a dozen Republican leaders weighing presidential bids are expected to attend a Sept. 23 fundraiser at the home of senior Romney donor Woody Johnson, owner of the New York Jets. The attendees, who include Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, will also attend a Washington fundraiser for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad the next day. The Washington event was organized, in part, by Lisa Spies, the wife of the pro-Romney super PAC founder, who helped raise more than $23 million last year as head of the Romney campaign's women's outreach program.
It's unclear how much influence Romney maintains over his former fundraising network, but he addressed the 2016 election last month at a New Hampshire Republican Party fundraiser, calling on his party to "stay smart," in part, by backing candidates who can win.
"My guess is that every one of the contenders would be better than whoever the Democrats put up," Romney said. "But there will only be one or perhaps two who actually could win the election in November."
While Romney didn't name names, donors privately suggest that they'd likely avoid conservative firebrands like Paul or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, or those like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker who have been critical of Romney's campaign. Romney's network has shown an early interest in Rubio in particular.
Just this year alone, Rubio's PAC has attracted donations from seven Romney "bundlers" -- a term used to describe people who help steer contributions from several donors to a candidate -- that generated a combined $1.8 million for Romney's campaign, according to campaign finance reports. Another four Romney bundlers are organizing a Washington fundraising reception for Rubio later this month.
Christie, by contrast, has received donations from just two Romney bundlers this year so far.
But those candidates still weighing presidential runs may not need Romney's team as they begin to shape their own national networks. Most are also courting donors outside Romney's orbit, a group that includes so-called megadonors who can give unlimited sums of money.
Conservative businessman Foster Friess, who almost single-handedly fueled Rick Santorum's 2012 presidential run, reports that "some" potential candidates are reaching out to him, although he declined to name them.
Fred Malek, a prominent Republican fundraiser, characterized this period as more about building relationships with potential fundraisers. He noted that some potential candidates have more pressing needs that could prove helpful for 2016.
"Most of the leading contenders for 2016 have their own elections to run. Chris Christie has one in two months. Scott Walker has one in about 14 months," Malek said. "So I think the connection with the national fundraising network is a natural."
That's the case for Christie in particular, who has aggressively courted out-of-state donors in recent months to help overcome fundraising rules in his home state.
Christie has maintained a relationship with the former Massachusetts governor over the phone and by email since the last election, despite lingering resentment among some Romney loyalists who question Christie's dedication to the Romney campaign last fall. In particular, many Republicans were angry that Christie canceled campaign appearances and embraced President Barack Obama after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the New Jersey coast.
Since then, however, Christie was one of the featured speakers at a Utah conference in June, organized by Romney, that was attended by a number of prominent Romney donors. Two of Romney's sons, Craig and Matt, attended a Christie fundraising luncheon in La Jolla, Calif., in February.
"We've obviously been seeking help from Mitt and his team for the governor's re-election. There's no secret about that," said Bill Palatucci, Christie's campaign chairman.
Christie is not alone.
"There's an enormous number of folks who'd like to have Gov. Romney help them in all kinds of ways," said former Romney aide Ron Kaufman.
Thomas reported from Washington.