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Area GOP contributions favor Romney

MANATEE -- They’ve watched the debates on TV, heard the radio sound bites and read the reports in print.

By now, most Republicans across Southwest Florida have penciled in a candidate for their vote in Florida’s long awaited GOP primary Tuesday. Some have even slid gobs of cash toward their favorite.

Voters across the Manatee-Sarasota area have donated a total $274,965 to the Republicans vying for the chance to unseat President Barack Obama as of Sept. 30, the latest filing date. Only four metro areas in the state have put more money into the race.

The contributions range from $10,000 checks written by prominent home developers to $50 from self-employed interior designers. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leads the way with the most raised locally.

“This is a big donor area, and that’s why you see the prominence in campaigns,” said Kathleen King, chairwoman of the Manatee County Republican Executive Committee. “I’m not surprised by the contributions coming in.”

Local GOP supporters have raised $134,260 for Romney, more than triple the next candidate in line.

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., has pulled in $44,500 -- his best showing in Florida, while U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, garnered $38,538 and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich earned $6,975, according to the Federal Elections Commission.

By contrast, Obama’s campaign has raised $112,052 in Southwest Florida.

Republicans voters in Manatee all had different reasons for donating to one candidate or another, but a common theme throughout was the need to keep one eye focused forward on Obama in the general elections.

Even through difficult times, GOP voters were willing to open their wallets if they thought it would help.

“Unless we want a socialist society we have to find somebody who can beat Obama,” said Airport Authority Chairman Carlos Beruff, who donated $2,500 to Romney. “He’s without a doubt the only candidate qualified enough to do it.”

Big money donors mostly leaned toward Romney, citing his qualifications. Romney also is the only GOP candidate who consistently beats Obama in most national polls -- opening the door to moderate and independent donors.

Gingrich had the least fundraising success in Southwest Florida. Developer Pat Neal says that is possibly due to Gingrich’s checkered past and recent negative publicity. Many just don’t see him as a viable option, said Neal, one of the area’s largest home builders.

Neal donated more than $5,000 to both Romney and Santorum, with whom he’s had a longer personal relationship. As far as the vote goes, he gives the nod to Romney.

“Romney is solid,” he said. “I believe we will see an energized Mitt Romney in Florida, with a focus on what’s important to Americans.”

The GOP candidates have faced three elections, in three states (Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina), with three different winners. Florida, as believed by many, could ultimately decide who moves on. Only California, New York and Texas have more than Florida’s $4.7 million backing Republican races.

Even those contributing to a candidate considered a long shot remain hopeful.“I don’t think our country’s ready for Ron Paul,” said David Garrett, an Ellenton resident and car sales manager who kicked in $150 toward Paul. “There’s only one candidate serious about the Constitution, balancing the budget and ending this world policing.”

Bradenton business owner Frederick Murrell had a close friend recommend donating to Santorum. After attending a campaign event, he was sold, writing a $250 check.

“He seems to have the qualifications,” Murrell said. “There’s some issues where we don’t walk hand-in-hand, but that would be true for any candidate.”

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095.