By Philip Rucker and Dan Eggen
Published: September 24, 2011

MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — With three debates behind them, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney embarked this weekend on a mad dash for campaign cash, each laboring to sway uncommitted Republican donors off the fence and to convince GOP elites that he would be the party’s best standard-bearer against President Obama.

The two presidential front-runners sharpened their messages here Saturday before hundreds of party leaders and donors, while in Florida, former Godfather’s Pizza executive Herman Cain upset them both by winning a closely watched straw poll in a display of conservative activist enthusiasm.

Perry and Romney are accelerating their efforts to woo new contributors this week before the Sept. 30 quarterly filing deadline. Perry will be raising funds in Washington and several mid-Atlantic states; Romney will be in New York and Boston — targeting the huge pool of traditional Republican donors who have remained stubbornly uncommitted thus far.

The two are hoping to post totals that signal strength and momentum heading into a fall campaign sprint that will be both consequential and costly. Perry’s backers have pegged his target at $10 million to $15 million, although his success will be judged in part by how much he raises outside Texas, where he is governor. Romney, meanwhile, is expected to post a similarly substantial sum, but aides cautioned that he was unlikely to surpass the $18 million he reported for the last quarter.

Obama also begins a fundraising swing across the West this weekend as his 2012 reelection campaign opens offices in the battleground states and stockpiles money for next year’s general election. Campaign manager Jim Messina has predicted the campaign would raise a combined $55 million with the Democratic National Committee, a notable drop from the $86 million total reported last quarter.

But it’s the Republicans who are at a key juncture. After a meteoric rise in the national polls, Perry finds himself suddenly humbled after a series of debate matchups against the more practiced Romney and an aggressive slate of candidates trying to break into the top tier.

On Saturday came more disappointing news, as Perry finished second to Cain, 37 percent to 15 percent, in the Florida straw poll — a contest that Perry had said was important and in which his campaign had invested many resources. Romney came in a close third, taking 14 percent of the more than 2,600 votes cast.

A Romney adviser said that Perry’s uneven performance Thursday night in Orlando had pushed some big-name donors who had been open to his candidacy toward the Romney fold.

“People watch the debates and call up and go, ‘Golly, I really want to help,’ ” said Brian Ballard, Romney’s Florida finance co-chairman. “We’re getting more people, and they’re writing bigger checks.”

Yet it seems a number of the top Republican benefactors are content to remain on the sidelines at least a little longer.

“It’s about 50-50 — 50 percent have made commitments, 50 percent are waiting,” said Fred Malek, a prominent fundraiser who is uncommitted. “There’s not a good reason to get off the fence at this point. There’s plenty of time to commit.”

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