In Vegas, high finance, big stars ... and Trump

Story highlights

  • Trump has shifted from "self-funder" to a candidate who needs to raise a whole lot of money
  • Those in attendance here skew heavily toward Republicans

Las Vegas (CNN)Amid the motivational speeches from NBA legend Kobe Bryant and Hollywood mega-star Will Smith, the "Caribbean Dreams"-themed pool party, relentless networking and high-level panels on equally high-level high finance, there was one constant at one of the world's premiere hedge fund conferences: Donald Trump.

He came up on panels. He came up during pitch meetings. He came up during private dinners and receptions. The financial elite, here in full force, appear to be in the same position as many in the Republican Party -- trying to get their heads around Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee.
    "Volatility," said Ray Nolte, chief investment officer for SkyBridge Capital, the $12 billion hedge fund that puts on the conference, when asked about the perception attendees have shared with him about the presidential race so far. "People are really starting to focus on it."
    That's no small thing for Trump, who has shifted from "self-funder" to a candidate who needs to raise a whole lot of money, and fast. The SALT Conference, which boasts a healthy roster of millionaire and billionaire attendees, is packed with potential GOP donors.
    While Trump's decision not to actively fundraise was considered inside his campaign as one of his best selling points during the primary, it has also put him at a distinct disadvantage as he looks toward the general election.
    Trump is likely going to face a Hillary Clinton operation funded to the tune of more than $1 billion. His fundraising apparatus is now literally being built from scratch, while Clinton's has been humming along for more than a year. For Republican House and Senate candidates and the Republican National Committee, progress on that front can't come soon enough.
    The conference itself, now in its eighth year, is technically far from a politics-centric event. While politics are always an element, it's a small one at an event that splits the focus between on high finance, the broader economy and philanthropy. Pitch books for potential clients or employers littered the sun-smattered porch that made up the SALT coffee lounge in the Bellagio. Panels with titles such as "The Alchemy of Activist Investing" and "Hunger Games: Leading Investment Strategies to Overcome Market Volatility" dominated most discussions.
    And there is an element of "spring break" -- at one time the nickname of the conference in the finance world -- that is still in existence. One attendee, asked about Trump, shrugged and responded, "Man, I'm just here to rage." Recognizing he was talking to a reporter, he then covered his conference-provided name-badge and jogged away.
    But those in attendance here skew heavily toward Republicans, and their past deep-pocketed donations to the campaigns and super PACs Trump single-handedly put an end to during the primary are littered throughout Federal Election Commission filings. Behind closed doors, according to several attendees, the conversations often turned not just to Trump, but to whether there was a willingness to donate to the New York billionaire.
    That's one of the reasons why Trump's newly-minted finance chief, Steve Mnuchin, was here for a day to hold a series of private meetings. He had help, too. Anthony Scaramucci, the event's co-founder and a top GOP donor who backed former Trump foes Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has signed on to help Trump's fundraising and was pressing attendees to join him. Former Sen. Scott Brown, a top Trump surrogate, was also making the rounds.
    At least one billionaire was ready to hop on board: energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens, who announced his support and in short order, committed to hosting a fundraiser for a super PAC aligned with Trump.
    Pickens also backed multiple candidates before coming home to Trump -- at first Bush, then Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson. But while he acknowledges Trump was far from his first choice, what he's seen from the New York billionaire has convinced him Trump can win -- possibly in a landslide, Pickens said in an interview with CNN.
    "He analyzed it very well," Pickens said of Trump's ability to tap into the emotions of the electorate. "We're all fed up with Washington."
    Impressions of what exactly a Trump candidacy means varied. "We all know Hillary is going to win, so we're not really worried," one hedge fund executive said.
    But after months of considering it a sideshow, many in the business community are starting to sharpen their focus on not only the campaign but the policies that have been coming out of it, according to Nolte. Many, he said, were taking a closer look at Trump and liked what they saw.
    "I think the growing sentiment is he's going to put together a very strong team," Nolte said. "He's going to surround himself with good people."
    Still, there are no shortage of questions for the presumptive nominee to answer. "There's certainly some nervousness around some of the rhetoric we've heard in some of the policy positions that he's kind of said, without a lot of depth behind them," Nolte said.
    That feeling may create an opening for Clinton -- at least according to Robert Wolf, the man considered to be President Barack Obama's closest friend in the business community,
    "It's clear to me that there's a lot of talk about Trump, but when you ask people here why do you support Donald Trump for president, most of the answers are either, 'I'm a Republican' or 'I don't like the secretary,'" Wolf said of the attendees he'd spoken to. "Seldom is it because I think Donald Trump is the right person to be president."
    For Wolf, now a Hillary Clinton supporter and outside adviser of sorts to the campaign, a lack of enthusiasm in the business community for Trump bodes well for Clinton.
    "Right now we're in a campaign where there's a lot populist rhetoric, there's a lot of nationalist rhetoric and there's a lot of one-liners that seem to literally be magnified in the airwaves," Wolf said. "But when it comes to substance, Secretary Clinton is by far and away the one candidate that talks with real substance."
    By the time the band The Killers were slated to take the stage for a private concert Thursday night, Mnuchin was gone and much of the behind the scenes work here had been completed. It was, for all intents and purposes, just another step in the evolution of Trump's campaign -- the success of which will play a large role in deciding whether Trump can win in November. It's an evolution many here are willing to get behind, even if there remain some regrets about Trump's candidacy.
    "If I had been his age, I'd have a chance at it too," Pickens said. "I'm just as appealing as he is, I think. And, I'm not as loud, as big, but I've got better hair."