WASHINGTON (AP) – Jeb Bush's challenge in the first half of the year was daunting yet simple. To be considered a fundraising success, the Republican presidential candidate had to hit the magic number of $100 million, an ambitious goal set by some in his campaign. And he did.
As another fundraising period ends, what now constitutes success for Bush isn't as clear cut. No longer the front-runner in preference polls, Bush won't repeat as the champion at raising money in the GOP's 2016 field, lapped in the past three months by retired surgeon Ben Carson and perhaps by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, too.
"They created such a high bar," said Spencer Zwick, a top Republican donor who was 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's finance chief. "Now anything less than $100 million in a quarter seems small."
But Bush's financial team and strategists argue that he should now be judged by a different benchmark. Their mantra: He's built to last. Using phrases like "go the distance," ''marathon" and "long haul," they argue that the former Florida governor is uniquely positioned to outlast other candidates, regardless of the fundraising number he posts for the third quarter.
"If we were frozen with just the resources we have right now, he could still be in the game right to the very end," said Kenneth Lipper, a New York financier and top fundraiser for Bush. "Longevity is the right word."
Bush's finance team describes his fundraising in the past three months as "respectable" and "fine," while declining to provide the specifics on just how much they raised. That detail will come later this month in a report filed with federal regulators.
It's true that the summer months of the year before the election are typically the bleakest time for candidates to raise money. Romney collected $14.2 million during the same period in 2011, the least of any three-month period between the beginning of his campaign and when he secured the Republican presidential nomination.
Yet the summer didn't slow down Carson, who has never run for office and has raised $20 million since July. Bush aides say they also expect to be topped by Cruz, the Texas senator with unvarnished contempt for his own party's leadership and an enthusiastic tea party following.
Bush has scored harder-to-measure fundraising gains, such as winning the support of Anthony Scaramucci, a national fundraising leader for former candidate Scott Walker. Next week, Bush heads back to Chicago, where he quickly converted former Romney supporters early this year, for a series of fundraisers hosted by wealthy donors who helped get his super PAC soaring.
Bush's fundraising still has a distinctly presidential look, in part because it includes so many who raised money for his father and brother. Bush's major donors will gather in Houston at the end of the month for a "Jeb celebration" that includes Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush.
"For others, stardom is ephemeral. I'm very happy to see Jeb hold his own," said Fred Zeidman, a Houston businessman raising money for Bush. "We have the most money and we can outlast. He's showing the discipline of a long-term candidate."
Unlike Walker, who dropped out of the race because he couldn't raise enough money to pay for his 100-employee political operation, Bush's campaign fundraising and campaign scale are in sync, his donors said. That doesn't mean they are comfortable where they are, or expect to be any time soon, said longtime Bush supporter Al Hoffman, the founder of Florida's largest real estate development company.
"We're all worried. That's what we do, we worry all the time," Hoffman said. "But it's a healthy sense of anxiety that we can always do more that keeps us going."
Craig Duchossois, a Chicago-area private equity investor and Bush donor, said national polls showing Bush in single digits unnerves some less-seasoned donors. He admits some movement this fall by Bush in early-voting state surveys "certainly would be encouraging."
But he argues that more than anything else, success for Bush at this stage is raising enough money for his actual campaign to stay in the race and take advantage of his super PAC. Helped by two dozen million-dollar checks, it amassed $103 million in donations through the end of June — more than double any other candidate-specific super PAC.
"Let me suggest to you that fundraising is not the metric as important for Jeb as it is for everyone else," said Duchossois, who hosted an event for Bush's super PAC in February. "Jeb's goal, and what we consider success, is getting his message across."
Bush, who as a candidate can no longer direct the super PAC, left it in the hands of his top media strategist, Mike Murphy. It has started spending its millions introducing Bush as "a committed conservative" to voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The tentacles of the official campaign, which also just began advertising, have spread well beyond those early voting states. That's partly why Austin Barbour said he joined Bush's campaign after former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the candidate he'd been helping, dropped out last month.
Barbour will help Bush organize a push for wins on March 1, when voters in a dozen states including Texas and Virginia cast their primary ballots.
"The campaigns that have the resources to go deep into April," Barbour said, "those are the ones that are going to survive and thrive. You've got to be prepared to go the distance."