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Presidential campaign donations dwindling; WNYers find little to get excited about

Western New Yorkers are greeting this year's presidential race with closed wallets and a collective yawn.

Four years after giving $1.29 million to an array of presidential candidates in one of the most exciting campaigns in memory, Western New Yorkers have shelled out a mere $168,250 for the campaign coffers of President Obama, presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney and several other candidates.

The vast gap between the 2008 and 2012 totals highlighted a Buffalo News analysis of presidential campaign donations from the seven westernmost counties of New York State through Feb. 29 of each of those years.

Political pros attributed the gap in fundraising between those two years to one simple fact: In 2008, two New Yorkers ran for president -- Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rudy Giuliani -- and this year no New Yorkers are in the race.

"There's not the same level of excitement this time," said Diana Cihak, who led the grass-roots Obama effort locally four years ago.

"Last time, on our side, there was just a lot of excitement about Rudy Giuliani," said Nick Sinatra, a local Republican activist who's given Romney the $2,500 maximum for his primary race.

But the big fundraising gap between 2008 and 2012 was just one of several important revelations to come from the analysis of Federal Election Commission donation data. In addition:

*Barack Obama raised more money locally than any other candidate this year, even though he took in nearly $12,000 less this year than he did four years ago.

*Romney raised vastly more money locally this year than he did in 2008 -- and more than $20,000 more than Sen. John McCain, the GOP nominee-in-waiting four years ago, raised at the same point.

*Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, showed surprising fundraising strength in Western New York this year, pulling in far more money than former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia did combined.

The Buffalo News analyzed the fundraising totals in anticipation of Tuesday's New York Republican primary, which will take place after Santorum's withdrawal from the race made Romney's path to the nomination much clearer.

More than anything else, the fundraising analysis served as a reminder of what an extraordinary primary campaign America experienced four years ago, when Clinton and Obama fought for the Democratic nomination into the summer and when Giuliani went from GOP front-runner to flame-out in a matter of weeks.

Backed by all the local Democratic organizations and several loyal donors from her two terms representing New York in the U.S. Senate, Clinton raked in $542,366 locally as of Feb. 29, 2008.

Meanwhile, Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, relied on a loyal Western New York following and GOP fundraising maestro Anthony Gioia to pull in $418,581.

And Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., relied on a team of well-heeled local trial lawyers to raise nearly as much in Western New York in 2008 as all of the 2012 candidates did combined.

>No 'epic battle'

Democrats and Republicans agree: The 2012 campaign, with a sitting Democratic president competing against a field of Republicans who, for the most part, have not even visited the Buffalo area, is just not the same.

"We had an epic battle last time on our side, and we were with Hillary Clinton for the whole race," said Erie County Democratic Chairman Len Lenihan.

The excitement over that Democratic battle dramatically boosted local fundraising numbers, Lenihan said.

And the same was true for Giuliani, who raised most of his local money in 2007 when polls showed him at the top of the Republican field.

Gioia organized the local Giuliani fundraising effort at the time, but this year, "I don't think we've done anything on the Republican side of any significance," said Gioia, who's now joining local businessman Mark E. Hamister in organizing Romney's visit to Buffalo for a fundraiser in June.

The Obama campaign has not done much of significance either -- other than raising $58,550 locally without even really trying.

Obama supporters say that lack of effort stems from the fact that the president is unopposed for the Democratic nomination this time around.

"It may very well be that you don't really have a reason to get active yet because there isn't a primary here," said Buffalo attorney Lawrence J. Vilardo, who organized a local fundraiser for Obama in the spring of 2008.

A friend with the Obama campaign approached Vilardo four years ago to ask him to get involved, but so far this year no one with the president's campaign has asked the Buffalo lawyer for fundraising help.

Vilardo thinks that will change, though. He expects to see Obama raise a substantial sum as the general election approaches.

"I don't see any reason why that shouldn't be the case," said Vilardo, who said Obama has done "a wonderful job" in keeping his campaign promises from four years ago.

Attorney William C. Bernhardi of East Aurora was the only local resident to give Obama the maximum of $2,500, although North Collins physician Anne Erlich contributed $2,300.

Just as in 2008, Obama appears to be relying on a vast array of relatively small donors to give what will add up to a big sum. Obama got 138 donations of at least $200 from Western New York -- and that's nearly four times the number of donations to Romney.

>Drop-off in support

Republicans, however, see great significance in the fact that Obama raised less money locally this year than he did four years ago.

"He's the sitting president, and I think this shows a drop-off of support," said Nicholas A. Langworthy, the Erie County Republican chairman.

Republicans also touted the fact that Romney raised only about $5,000 less than that sitting president even before there was any mention of a Romney fundraiser here.

"Mitt Romney is more of a Northeast Republican," who emphasizes economic issues more than social issues, said Sinatra, a former political aide in the George W. Bush White House. "That's what he is, and that's what folks here can best relate to."

Gioia said he settled on Romney as the campaign evolved and the candidate began discussing American exceptionalism, which "is very important to me."

Before that, Gioia had given the $2,500 maximum to Romney as well as two of his GOP rivals: Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.

One other big GOP donor hedged his bets early on as well. Akron industrialist and serial congressional candidate Jack Davis gave the maximum to Romney, Huntsman, Paul and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachman.

Meanwhile, some major players in the local GOP establishment lined up behind Romney. Among those giving the former Massachusetts governor $2,500 were Assemblywoman Jane Corwin of Clarence and her husband, Philip; Jeremy M. Jacobs of Delaware North Cos. and Gibraltar Industries CEO Brian J. Lipke.

Neither of Romney's main GOP rivals, Santorum and Gingrich, pulled in a single big-name, big-money contribution from Western New York.

>Small donors matter

But that likely changed Friday, when developer Carl P. Paladino and other Republican leaders joined Gingrich for a fundraiser that was expected to net $30,000.

Paul didn't attract any big donors other than Davis, instead relying on a large number of relatively small donors.

The libertarian firebrand from Texas received 70 donations, which is nearly twice as many as Romney.

Until Friday's visit from Gingrich, Paul's visit to East Aurora last August was the only one by a GOP presidential contender in this election cycle, a fact that likely boosted his fundraising total.

That rally drew more than 400 people, which is no surprise to GOP movers and shakers.

"Ron Paul has got a loyal cadre here in Western New York," Gioia said.