LOS ANGELES - Washington may be broken - as Mitt Romney likes to say - but the question now hanging over his campaign is whether he is willing to break the bank to go to Washington and fix it.
After vastly outspending his rivals in the early stages of the campaign, Romney is now facing a tough decision over how much more of his personal fortune to sink into the race to stay competitive with John McCain on Super Tuesday, particularly in states with big, expensive media markets such as California.
"The fact that I turned on my TV set this morning and did not see a Romney commercial does not bode well," Jon Fleischman, vice chairman of the California Republican Party, said yesterday. "Every day you wait, you're missing an opportunity to impact the California vote. If Romney is not on TV In California soon, it's the equivalent of ceding the state to McCain."
Romney, a former head of Bain Capital, is worth between $190 million and $250 million. As of Sept. 30, he reported plowing $17.4 million of his fortune into his campaign and spending about $45 million nationwide. Today, the former Massachusetts governor must report how much he has spent through Dec. 31 - a sum that could fuel criticism from McCain that he is trying to buy the election. Several reports, which the Romney campaign has not denied, say he has already spent $35 million to $40 million of his own money overall.
"It's rarely a sin in America to be successful and we don't generally count that against people," said Rich Galen, an unaligned Republican strategist who worked on the Fred Thompson campaign. "But on the other hand, we don't let people buy public office."
Romney has declined to say how much he is willing to invest. He has said he and his wife have agreed privately on a limit. And he points out that he has raised more money than his opponents from thousands of contributors.
Romney's fund-raising is one key advantage he holds over McCain, who is riding the momentum from winning the last two Republican contests, plus the endorsement yesterday of Rudy Giuliani. "Romney has always been the only one of all the candidates who has ever had the capacity to fight his war on fronts, in all places, at all times, if he wanted to," Galen said.
But even if he wanted to, Romney could not afford the hundreds of millions of dollars it would likely cost to air ads in all the states that hold nominating contests on Tuesday, said Dan Schnur, an unaligned Republican strategist.
"We're talking about more than 20 states and some of the largest media markets in the country," Schnur said. "Mitt Romney is rich, but he's not that rich. I don't know if there's anybody in the country besides Mike Bloomberg and Oprah Winfrey who could afford saturation ad buys in those states over the course of the week. Given his resources, he's going to have to pick his spots."
Schnur said he has been struck by Romney's judiciousness with his funds. When Romney began to drop in the polls in South Carolina, he cut back his advertisements there and focused his resources in Michigan, where he beat McCain.
"It's clear to this point that Romney is willing to invest his own money, but he doesn't spent it wildly," he said. "He's fairly careful and he's fairly cautious about where he spends. So writing one huge check to buy tens of millions of dollars of advertisements might be a little more extravagant than he's been willing do at this point."
McCain late Tuesday reported raising $7 million in the first three weeks of January. He ended 2007 with $3 million cash on hand and a $4.5 million debt, according to Federal Election Commission records. McCain plans to hold fund-raisers in San Francisco and Los Angeles today, in St. Louis and Chicago tomorrow, and in Nashville and Atlanta on Saturday. Romney held several fund-raisers in Florida last week and plans one in California today.
Scott Baugh, a former California Assembly Republican leader who is a co-chairman of Romney's national finance team, said he did not believe that voters will punish Romney for spending his own fortune.
"Money's important, but money is not going to determine the outcome of this race," Baugh said yesterday. "This race will be decided on ideas, and who voters believe should be the conservative standard bearer."
But Romney is clearly aware of the sensitivity of the issue. Speaking to supporters after his loss to McCain in Florida on Tuesday night, the former venture capitalist joked about how much of his savings he must now drain to rack up delegates on Super Tuesday.
"All you guys are family," he told the crowd. "Don't expect to be part of the inheritance. I'm not sure there's going to be much left after this."
Material from the Associated Press was also used in this report. Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com.