CHICAGO—President Obama's reelection team has launched an invigorated effort to draw money from wealthy donors, buttressing the campaign against a potential decline in contributions from the everyday supporters who helped fuel his massive take in 2008.
A new program called Presidential Partners asks supporters to commit $75,800 to the Obama Victory Fund, a joint project of the campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
That would put Democratic contributors at the maximum they are allowed to give national party committees for the entire 2012 cycle -- leaving then unable to donate to the party's congressional fundraising entities.
The effort to court deep-pocketed backers comes amid uncertainty about whether Obama will be able to reproduce the level of small donations that were estimated to have made up about half of the $745 million he raised in the 2008 campaign.
The Obama campaign has not given up on recharging that source of support: A recent email solicitation offered four supporters a chance to have "Dinner with Barack" for as little as a $5 donation.
But the increased emphasis on major fundraisers -- including those who gathered money for Hillary Rodham Clinton's competing presidential bid -- carries some risks. While Obama continues to woo supporters at low-dollar fundraisers, his meetings with high rollers -- including a $35,800-a-plate dinner Thursday night with Wall Street executives in a posh Manhattan restaurant -- could undercut the image he has tried to craft.
So far, about 115 donors have signed up for Presidential Partners, one of three major donor programs to offer special access to campaign officials in exchange for contributions.
Early reports filed with Federal Election Commission show the Obama campaign is getting results, with the Democratic National Committee far outperforming its Republican counterpart in drawing large donations.
Between January and May, the DNC raised $11 million from donors contributing more than $30,000 compared with just $3 million raised in that category by the Republican National Committee, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Big donations -- those in amounts of $10,000 or above -- represent 38% of the total raised in the early part of this year by the DNC, the Center found, compared with just 18% in that category for Republicans.
Obama's campaign did not dispute the figures but suggested that small-donor activity would be more fully revealed in upcoming campaign disclosure reports. The Obama camp claims a higher standard for donors. "Unlike our opponents, our campaign doesn't accept a dime from Washington lobbyists or special-interest PACs -- we rely on contributions from individuals across the country," said campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.
The press for large donors by both parties has intensified in the wake of recent Supreme Court rulings that allow individuals and corporations to spend unlimited sums on independent campaign efforts. The importance of independent efforts was underscored Friday when Crossroads GPS, a group founded by Bush advisor Karl Rove and other Republicans, announced the Monday start to a $20-million advertising campaign targeting Obama and other Democrats.
Federal election law still limits individuals to giving no more than $5,000 to a candidate in an election cycle. But they can give substantially more to a joint fundraising committees, such as the Obama Victory Fund, which can simultaneously raise money for the campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
In 2008, both Obama and Republican nominee John McCain used such joint committees to raise funds for their presidential efforts. But this year, the Democratic party and Obama's reelection effort are drawing more large donations.
Campaign officials have told donors they hope to raise "north of $750 million" overall, with $60 million in the bank by the end of this month.
Presidential Partners, which locks up contributors for two years, is the most sweeping of the campaign's donor programs.
Members are required to pledge a total of $75,800 over the next two years -- contributing the allowed maximum of $5,000 to the Obama campaign, $61,600 to the DNC and the remaining $9,200 to a joint committee controlled by the campaign that will funnel money to key battleground states. In exchange, they -- like other major donors -- will be invited to quarterly campaign briefings, such as the one in March that Obama himself attended.
"The idea was to get people to commit to give the maximum they had the ability to give over the two-year cycle," said a member of the campaign's national finance committee, who declined to be named in order to speak freely about internal strategy. "For a lot of people, it's very simple: they fill out one form, they're done. They've committed to the president and there are no more phone calls."
The program is similar to the party's National Advisory Board, which requires donors to give the Democratic National Committee the maximum allowed under law for four years. But Presidential Partners requires an extra commitment to the Obama campaign.
Some party operatives fear that the campaign could lock up the resources of major donors, reducing the take of the House and Senate campaign committees. Others were somewhat more sanguine.
"I expect the net effect on down-ballot candidates will be relatively modest," said media strategist Jim Jordan, a former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who noted that the program would likely attract donors only interested in the presidential race.
"Still, it would be alarming for the party committees and Senate and House candidates if an enormous number of traditional donors in the party were leaving nothing else for anyone else," he added.
An Obama campaign official who declined to speak publicly said that the campaign would continue "as always to urge donors to give to House and Senate candidates."