Battling milkmaids
(David Horsey/LA Times)

Mitt Romney's decision to forego a third campaign for president has set off a scramble for money among the remaining "establishment" Republicans who are considering a run for the White House. Like cash cows with full udders, wealthy Romney backers are suddenly being eyed by the likes of Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio, each of whom would love to be the first in line with a milk bucket.

In 2012, the ultimately unsuccessful Romney effort may have lacked a smart strategy or a perfect candidate, but money was no problem. Mr. Romney's network of donors helped finance a billion-dollar campaign. With Mr. Romney opting out of 2016's political scrum, all those hedge-fund managers, corporate chieftains and bored billionaires now need to find a new place to invest their political play money.


There are about 300 mega-donors who pay the bills for Republicans. With as many as a dozen contenders trying to put themselves in a good position for a run at the GOP nomination, the question is whether donors will get behind just one or two of them or, instead, spread their money so widely that no one gains a substantial advantage. The people who have vast personal wealth or are experts at bundling the wealth of others tend to favor the candidates most likely to protect and defend the interests of the rich. They are wary of those who seem too eager to lead a social crusade, especially if one of the targets of such a crusade is Wall Street.

As a result, a tea party favorite such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a populist evangelical such as Mike Huckabee, and a libertarian with unorthodox economic ideas such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul all seem too risky for the big money boys. Conventionally conservative governors and ex-governors like Messrs. Christie, Walker and Bush are a safer bet.

Mr. Rubio, the freshman senator whose political career in Florida sprouted and grew as fast as a mangrove in the Everglades, is also acceptable because his robust right wing views are balanced by a conventional personal style. Recently, Mr. Rubio proved his appeal at an economic forum in Rancho Mirage sponsored by the billionaire Koch Brothers. While Rand Paul turned off the mega-donors with his blue jeans, cowboy boots and suspicious economic ideas, Mr. Rubio was a big hit in his well-cut blue suit, starched white shirt and crimson tie. They also liked his pro-growth talking points. Mr. Rubio's reward was to take first place in a straw poll of the donors.

Following the money will be an interesting game in the coming weeks. Mr. Romney started the primary season in 2012 way ahead in the race for dollars. Though he was tested along the way by Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, Mr. Romney was always able to dip into his huge hoard to buy the wall-to-wall attack ads that stunted every upward thrust of his opponents' campaigns. They never had enough money to really fight back.

Messrs. Christie and Bush would both love to be the new Mr. Romney in the eyes of top contributors, but they could face stiff competition for that designation from Messrs. Rubio and Walker.

It may seem ridiculously early to be paying so much attention to a presidential election that is still nearly two years away, but the battle for money has already begun -- perhaps the most important battle of the long campaign. After all, as the money goes, so goes the nation.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to see more of his work.