GOP presidential hopefuls court big business

May 25, 2011: 12:12 PM ET

The contest for the Republican presidential ticket is filled with Washington outsiders, making the race to win over lobbyists inside the Beltway all the more complicated.

By Tory Newmyer, writer

FORTUNE -- Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty kicked off his bid for the Republican presidential nomination this week by telling corn-rich Iowans he wants to phase out ethanol subsidies. Then he headed to Florida, the retiree's haven, and called for reform of entitlement programs like Social Security.

Tim Pawlenty

Tim Pawlenty heads to K. Street

The moves were aimed at underlining the early theme of Pawlenty's campaign -- that he's got the courage to tell hard truths to a nation in deep trouble. But you can't build a presidential bid on Sister Souljah moments alone, and when the candidate tours Washington today, he'll devote some time to the grubbier work of standing up his nascent operation.

Between a speech at the Cato Institute and visits with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Pawlenty will collect campaign cash during his first D.C. fundraiser. The event, a lunch in the K Street offices of the law and lobbying shop Wiley Rein, LLP, likely won't raise a huge pile of cash. Attendees are required to cough up a relatively modest $500 each to get in the door, according to a copy of the invite. It will, however, help the campaign establish a Beltway beachhead, an important task for GOP hopefuls as the field congeals.

Pawlenty is hardly the only candidate quietly courting Washington's permanent class of lobbyists and political operatives. His chief rivals have been making the rounds, as well. Last week, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, fresh off a turn as President Obama's ambassador to China, came to town for a series of small meet-and-greets ahead of his likely announcement. (Read more about the Huntsman dynasty.) And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney enjoys a ready-built machine of loyalist lobbyists that rallied to his cause four years ago. He's looking to shore up and add to their ranks with a D.C. kickoff fundraiser scheduled for June 29.

The activity reflects an odd fact of the Republican contest so far. Voters these days hate Washington even more than they usually do. So it should come as no surprise that the top-tier of Republican contenders in an open primary lacks a sitting Member of Congress for the first time in more than 40 years.

But that doesn't mean the Beltway establishment will have no role to play in the primary stakes. On the contrary, with the field now all but set, a quiet but increasingly energetic contest is shaping up for the support of the city's moneymen -- those lobbyists and other operatives with deep pockets and access to C-level corporate executives across the country.

Daniels departure leaves many unattached

The contest for K Street's unaligned powerbrokers kicked into high gear this week after the Sunday announcement by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels that he won't make the race. A political adviser to President Ronald Reagan and budget director for President George W. Bush, Daniels maintained a robust Washington network that remained sidelined pending his decision. His supporters-in-waiting now join the roster of lobbyists who had been lined up behind Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, another longtime Washington hand who announced April 25 that he was forgoing a bid. (That Barbour was himself once a powerful Washington lobbyist helped pad his enviable D.C. Rolodex, even as it presented serious challenges to his electability.)

"I'm 0-2," says David Norcross, a Republican lobbyist and partner at Blank Rome who would have backed Barbour, then Daniels. Now, he says, "I'm nowhere," though he says he heard from Huntsman last week and will need to talk to him before picking a new horse. Likewise, Rick Hohlt, a native Indianan and prominent GOP lobbyist with strong ties to Daniels, says he is in no hurry to recommit. "I'll see how it goes and make an evaluation," he says.

Each camp has its work cut out. Romney has a head start rounding up support. But some of his backers from 2008 are shopping for alternatives. They're concerned about how Romney can overcome his signature achievement as governor -- a health care overhaul that included an individual mandate and became a model for the Democratic reform law that Republicans hope to make a focus of the general election.

Huntsman has his own Obama problem, having served in the administration. People who attended his sessions last week said Huntsman didn't take on the President directly. Rather, he presented himself as a serious-minded problem-solver ready to tackle the nation's fiscal problems. Attendees were impressed but not overwhelmed.

Pawlenty, perhaps more than anything else, simply needs to demonstrate he is mustering a serious campaign and represents the most viable alternative to Romney. On the eve of the Minnesotan's Washington debut as a declared candidate, a source close to his camp pooh-poohed the significance of the K Street shadow primary. Pawlenty's camp believes the race will be won out in the field, this source said -- a process that Beltway chatter will do little to shape.

That's of course a reasonable argument to expect from any Republican campaign competing to take on an incumbent Democratic president in anti-Washington environment. But if the Beltway establishment really didn't matter, the campaigns wouldn't be locked in an increasingly intense competition here to round up support.

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