Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney launched a multimillion-dollar purchase of television ads Thursday, in a last-ditch effort to remain competitive with GOP presidential front-runner John McCain in the Super Tuesday contests.
Sources familiar with Romney's plans said the ad buy would exceed $1 million in California alone, enough to give the former Massachusetts governor a presence in much of the state. Romney also was expected to spread some money around to some of the other 20 states holding GOP primaries or caucuses Tuesday, though experts question whether the late advertising would have any impact.
"I don't think it's possible to flood the airwaves in 22 states," Romney said, but he nevertheless authorized "a seven-figure -- I won't give you the exact number -- but a seven-figure advertising buy for our campaign."
After a series of single-state contests in which voters could shake candidates' hands, the Republican presidential nomination could be decided by millions of voters casting their ballots after having seen the candidates only in advertisements or news reports.
Those political ads depend on candidates' ability to pay for them, and with the fields in both parties dwindling this week, the surviving candidates looked to pick up the support of former candidates' fundraisers and bundlers.
McCain has gained a substantial advantage in recent days, after winning this week's primary in Florida and appearing on front pages of newspapers and on television news programs. He also picked up the endorsements of former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who quit the race Wednesday, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Along with his wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, he raised more than $7 million in January, approaching the $10 million raised in the final three months of 2007, his aides said. McCain is said to be considering advertising buys but has made none yet.
McCain's total was far less than the eye-popping $32 million-plus that Democratic Sen. Barack Obama amassed in January. That one-month total is more than he raised in any quarter in 2007 and would allow him to "aggressively" advertise in several Tuesday primary states, press secretary Bill Burton said. Obama raised $103 million in 2007 and spent $85 million.
The Illinois senator was staying in Hollywood after Thursday's debate; a sell-out crowd of 1,600 was to greet him at a fundraiser at the club Avalon.
His main rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, did not disclose the amount of money she raised in January. Federal Election Commission rules don't require such disclosure until the end of next month.
But she amassed $118 million in 2007 and was headed to her own post-debate fundraiser, to be headlined by Barbra Streisand.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry also endorsed McCain on Thursday. Although some experts doubt that voters are influenced by endorsements, no one doubts there will be a fundraising pay-off: Schwarzenegger, Giuliani and Perry hail from the states that are the richest sources of campaign cash.
McCain, who was out of money only a few months ago, was quick to seize the advantage by appearing with Schwarzenegger on Thursday night for a fundraiser at the home of Harry Sloan, head of MGM Studios.
Giuliani's top donors have begun lining up behind the Arizona Republican. McCain received the blessing of people close to Texas energy magnate T. Boone Pickens Jr., though not Pickens himself. Pickens is said to have been Giuliani's largest single fundraiser, generating $1 million or more.
John Herrington, President Reagan's secretary of Energy, is a partner of Pickens' at Clean Energy Fuels Corp., a Seal Beach firm that provides natural gas to vehicle fleets. Andrew Littlefair is Clean Energy's president. Both co-hosted numerous fundraisers for Giuliani and now plan to do the same for McCain.
"I'm ready to look forward," Littlefair said, adding that McCain is versed on the issue most important to him -- the "dangers of overreliance on foreign energy."
For his part, Romney held a fundraiser in Irvine. But Romney, who ran a private equity firm before entering politics and is worth more than $250 million, was expected to dip further into his personal bank accounts to pay for his ad buys. He spent $35.35 million of his own money last year.
"There is no question that [McCain] has a tremendous amount of momentum," said Scott Baugh, one of Romney's top California fundraisers. "But Gov. Romney set out a plan to run, and he is going to finish what he set out to do. There will be a tremendous fight in California."
The Democratic faceoff
On the Democratic side, bundlers for Obama and Clinton were in hot pursuit of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards' donors after the suspension of Edwards' campaign Wednesday.
Bay Area trial attorney Joseph W. Cotchett, one of Edwards' largest fundraisers, said he was invited to participate in a phone call with former President Clinton. He declined and is backing Obama.
"I truly believe a lot of Edwards' supporters are going that way," Cotchett said. "It is clear this country needs a new direction. The old ways need to change."
Los Angeles Democrat Sim Farar, one of Clinton's top volunteer fundraisers, has been calling Edwards bundlers seeking their support. But first, he sympathizes. Having been a fundraiser for Al Gore in 2000 and John F. Kerry in 2004, Farar knows that a loss "hits you in the belly."
"They have worked hard. I feel their pain," Farar said.
Romney's eleventh-hour advertising blitz contrasts sharply with the air war already underway between Clinton and Obama. They have been advertising in most of the 22 states holding Democratic nominating contests Tuesday.
Yet neither has sufficient funds to blanket California, let alone all Super Tuesday states, with advertising. They are putting up ads head-to-head in only eight states: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Missouri, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.
An expert on the purchase of television time in California, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said advertising by Obama and Clinton here is little more than "token." They appear to be spending less than $2 million apiece, a pittance compared to the tens of millions being spent for and against the gambling measures on California's ballot.
"It is more or less to say they've been here," the expert said.
Ads are no guarantee
Other observers said that the last-minute nature of the GOP candidates' advertising significantly reduces the potential impact of ads in the crucial Super Tuesday states.
McCain strategist Steve Schmidt said Romney was on the air for months in New Hampshire and Florida, and lost.
Furthermore, "Gov. Romney outspent Sen. McCain 8-to-1 in Florida, and his candidacy was pretty decisively rejected by the voters," Schmidt said.
Kenneth Goldstein, a political media analyst at the University of Wisconsin, agreed that the tide had turned: "Things are starting to solidify, and the ability to change voter attitudes with paid media in five or six days is pretty limited.
"Political ads matter at the margins, and we may be at the point where the margins don't matter," Goldstein added. "People know McCain and generally know Romney. Certainly there's a lot more to learn, but there's not enough money or time to teach them much in five days."
Times staff writers Maria La Ganga, Seema Mehta and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.