01:30 - Source: CNN
Graham: 'I know what it's like to be knocked down'
Park City, Utah CNN —  

Marco Rubio dazzled donors with his intensity on the field during a flag football game. John Kasich made friends debating the fate of his beloved Cleveland Cavaliers. Lindsey Graham tried out his zingers on potential backers while shooting trap Saturday morning on the range.

But the campaign for cash Saturday among the 2016 presidential hopefuls at Mitt Romney’s annual donor retreat here ended essentially where it began: Stalemate.

Facing a crowded field and a more difficult set of choices among the presidential hopefuls than past cycles, a high number of top GOP donors – who usually would sign on early with a campaign – remain undecided.

Romney’s annual conference, hosted by Solamere – the private equity firm co-founded by his son – brought out some 200 investors and former bundlers for the former Massachusetts governor’s two presidential campaigns, making it a must-stop event for invited presidential candidates who are looking to break out of the scrambled presidential field.

The candidate once viewed as the most formidable contender, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, missed the gathering because he was traveling in Europe. But just days before he officially announces his presidential campaign, there was much chatter swirling here around the difficulties of his early effort and whether he can get it in gear.

“There is no frontrunner anymore,” Bobbie Kilberg, a Republican fundraiser in Virginia who attended the gathering and is raising money for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Noting that she frequently speaks with donors who are giving to more than one candidate, Kilberg added that Christie views the unwillingness among donors to commit as an opportunity. “Christie’s attitude is that’s fine. We’re in the dating phase, not the marriage phase.”

Seizing that opening, the six presidential candidates spent the three days at the Stein Eriksen Lodge in Deer Valley meeting with donors one-on-one or in small groups.

Each of the six – Christie, Rubio, Kasich, Graham, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina – had the opportunity to address the entire group, with most delivering their version of the 60-second elevator pitch for their candidacy.

Walker described himself to donors as “a fighter” and “a winner” – pointing to his heated standoff with public labor unions and the fact that he has won in a blue state. Behind the scenes, his supporters urged donors here to pay close attention to his broad donor base, and predicted that he would be able to bring in more small dollar donations than a candidate like Bush.

Rubio, the 44-years old Florida senator, addressed donors after organizers flashed photos of him at the morning flag football event for donors.

Rubio described his youth as something of a double-edged sword: offering him a helpful generational contrast to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, but leading some would-be backers to question whether he’s prepared for the presidency.

“There are some that have said, well, you haven’t lived long enough to be president,” Rubio told the group. “I may not have lived as long or have been in government as long as some other people, but I’ve been around long enough to know that the old ways of doing things aren’t working anymore.”

Wayne Berman, a long-time GOP fundraiser supporting Rubio, said his youthful image was helping his fundraising effort.

“There’s a lot of excitement about Marco, obviously, he’s a candidate who … presents a different face for the Republican Party,” he said.

Berman also rejected the notion that Romney’s former donors would coalesce behind any one candidate: “In the eight campaigns that I’ve worked on previously, I’ve never seen donors move in a block.”

“Donors and fundraisers are successful individuals who are highly motivated, they make their own decisions, they are not subject to group think,” Berman said. “You recruit them one at a time.”

Many donors were drilling the candidates in Park City about their path to victory – how they could emerge strong enough after the primaries to face Clinton, who held the kickoff for her campaign Saturday.

Pitching his brand of compassionate conservatism, Kasich, the Ohio governor, cast himself as one of the few candidates with a record worthy of facing off against Clinton’s.

“You think you’re going to beat Hillary Clinton by just destroying the Clintons? You’ve got to be kidding me,” Kasich said. “We have to offer a larger vision, a hopeful vision, a positive vision that’s believable, carried by somebody who has a record of success.”

Many of Romney’s onetime fundraisers were looking to test the strength of each candidate’s finance network – whether it could grow into something comparable to the one that raised $1 billion for Romney’s 2012 effort.

The first major test of that financial viability will be later this summer when many of the PACs and super PACs will report their early tallies.

While Bush may be on track to raise jaw-dropping amounts from wealthy donors, Spencer Zwick, who led Mitt Romney’s finance effort in 2012, noted that it’s helpful to also have a broad set of dogged supporters who are willing to fundraise on your behalf.

“You’re going to need donors to give, but you’re also going to need an army of people to raise,” Zwick said. “It’s one thing to write a check, it’s another thing to passionately start working.”

For his part, Romney said his role was “up in the air,” but that he would like to avoid getting involved in the process before voters choose their nominee.

At the same time, he said he might get involved if the race came down to two GOP candidates – one aligned with his beliefs and one who wasn’t.

With no king – or apparent kingmaker – some of the lower tier candidates said were enjoying the extended courtship, and encouraging donors to take their time. Graham, for example, told some of them to expect surprises as they watched for traction the early states.

“At the end of the day,” Graham said, “there’s not enough money in the world to get you elected president unless you can connect with voters.”