The big money in presidential politics is about to get a whole lot bigger.
Aides and leading donors to Mitt Romney are preparing a major expansion of the campaign’s fund-raising efforts to prepare for a general election contest against President Obama, with the goal of raising up to $600 million, according to several people involved in the discussions.
Republican-leaning outside groups and Democratic-leaning unions are planning to spend hundreds of millions more.
And Mr. Obama, who raised $750 million in 2008, is likely to meet or exceed that this year, according to people involved in his fund-raising operation.
Those goals make it virtually certain that neither party’s nominee will accept public funds for the general election or the spending limits that come with them — the likely death knell for a cornerstone of the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms intended to limit the influence of money in federal elections.
Mr. Obama opted out of the public financing program in 2008, breaking a campaign pledge, and went on to outspend the Republican nominee, John McCain, by four to one.
“This is going to be the most moneyed election in the history of the United States,” said Bob Edgar, the president of Common Cause, a group that favors greater restrictions on campaign spending. Mr. Edgar, a former congressman who was among the Democratic “Watergate babies” elected in the wake of the scandal, added, “There is a sense of coming full circle, of forgetting our history — the reason we installed a system for financing campaigns that didn’t rely on corporate or wealthy money.”
Mr. Obama has already held over a hundred major fund-raisers for his campaign, jointly raising large amounts with the Democratic National Committee, and Mr. Romney is moving quickly to catch up. His campaign is planning dozens of fund-raisers through the end of June, high-dollar events that will feature Mr. Romney as well as the campaign’s top allies and other elected officials.
The campaign is setting a goal of raising at least $1 million for most events featuring Mr. Romney personally.
Those efforts will be aided by a new joint fund-raising agreement with the Republican National Committee that allows Mr. Romney to command far larger checks than he has during the primaries, when his campaign was limited to increments of $2,500 or less. Under the agreement, guests at major Romney events will be able to write checks as large as $75,000 to a “Romney Victory” committee.
About half of that sum would go Mr. Romney’s campaign or the Republican committee, mimicking the arrangement under which Mr. Obama, as an incumbent, has been raising money since last spring for his campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The remainder will be split among Republican state parties in Massachusetts, Idaho, Oklahoma and Vermont — where party leaders are deemed loyal to Mr. Romney — and later re-allocated to the most critical battleground states.
“It’s going to ramp up dramatically,” said Woody Johnson, owner of the New York Jets and one of Mr. Romney’s national finance co-chairmen. “The response I’ve been getting, of people willing to max out on the victory side, has been very very good, very enthusiastic.”
Restore Our Future, the “super PAC” whose millions of dollars in negative advertising helped bury Mr. Romney’s Republican rivals, will also shift its focus to the general election, officials familiar with its plans said. The group, which raised more than $43 million through the end of February, is hoping to reach the $100 million mark by the end of the cycle.
The super PAC will also have help from Mr. Romney’s allies and backers: Jim Talent, the former United States senator and a key surrogate for Mr. Romney during the primaries, appeared at a Restore Our Future briefing for donors in New York on Wednesday.
And people involved with the group’s fund-raising have in recent days approached Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino owner whose family contributed over $16 million to a rival super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich, to consider contributing to Restore Our Future. They have also approached Charles and David Koch, the wealthy conservative businessmen who founded Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group, according to two people with knowledge of the conversations.
Restore Our Future’s political director, Carl Forti, is also an official with American Crossroads, a pro-Republican super PAC that is planning to raise as much as $300 million to spend on the 2012 elections. Federal rules permit the two super PACs to coordinate directly with each other on raising and spending money, and Mr. Romney’s allies expect that Crossroads and other outside groups, like Americans for Prosperity, will spend up to $100 million against Mr. Obama.
But people involved in the Romney fund-raising efforts emphasized that much about the plans remained fluid, as both the campaign and officials at outside groups who support Mr. Romney grapple with the new world of super PACs. The PACs are expected to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising this year and have tested programs more traditionally associated with campaigns, like voter identification and turnout.
“This is so different,” said one Romney adviser, who asked for anonymity to discuss confidential deliberations. “I think this is uncharted waters.”
Romney advisers said the first wave of attack ads from Mr. Obama’s campaign — which sought to tie Mr. Romney to oil companies — would soon be countered by commercials from Mr. Romney.
They also suggested that the combined fund-raising would make his campaign competitive with Mr. Obama and other pro-Democratic groups, chiefly unions, which are planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on federal, state and local elections this year. Mr. Obama’s own supportive super PAC, Priorities USA Action, has had difficulty raising large contributions, though officials there hope they will increase significantly as the general election approaches.
Exactly how much Mr. Obama will raise this year is a matter of speculation and dispute. Mr. Romney’s campaign and other Republicans have suggested that Mr. Obama — the most successful presidential fund-raiser in history — will bring in a billion dollars, a figure Mr. Obama’s campaign has called little more than a myth intended to motivate conservative donors.
Some of Mr. Romney’s own donors believe that figure is more likely for Mr. Obama in combination with the Democratic National Committee and other outside groups, like Priorities USA.
In briefings with potential donors, officials at Priorities USA have estimated that Mr. Romney and the Republican National Committee would bring in a combined $750 million, while Restore Our Future would bring in $250 million.