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Deep-pocketed GOP donors near decision time with Christie decision

By msnbc.com's Michael O'Brien

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's speech tonight at the Reagan Library will be closely scrutinized for any sign that the brash GOP icon has changed his mind, and will run for president.

All signs point to Christie reaffirming his earlier commitment to stay out of the race for the 2012 GOP nomination -- the governor's brother said Tuesday that he will not run -- but his declaration may well force some top-dollar Republican donors to finally move off the sidelines, and commit to a candidate currently in the race.

The New York Times profiled a series of deep-pocketed Republicans, who have helped fuel the "Draft Christie" movement, which has persisted for months despite the first-term governor's insistence that he's not seeking national office. Home Depot founder Kenneth Langone is widely identified as the impetus behind that movement, but he and a series of other Christie supporters might be forced to reconsider their options if the Garden State governor ultimately decides not to run.

"There are a lot of guys with a Romney bumper sticker on their desk, but are waiting to put it on their car," said one Republican tied into the party's fundraising circuit, who declined to speak on the record so as to not alienate donors.

Indeed, there's already a bit of overlap. One potential Christie backer named in the Times story, the investment guru Charles Schwab, sent Romney a $2,500 donation in late June. The other potential Christie backers named in the story have otherwise stayed out of the presidential race, though they have already been active in contributing to GOP House and Senate campaigns.

That leaves Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the two frontrunning candidates for the GOP nomination, battling for an edge in the contest for financial support. Both men are seeking not only an advantage in their campaign warchests, but also in support from high-profile donors, whose backing would signal that the smart money is leaning toward one campaign or another. Moreover, those top donors could also help "bundle" money for the primary campaigns, and help multiply the fundraising haul for Romney or Perry.

"There's no question, there's money on the sidelines right now, and I wouldn't say it's on the sidelines for any particular candidate," said another Republican consultant, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about the race.

"I think it's only natural, because people like to be with a winner, and they're all waiting to see because, to be honest, nobody's knocked anybody's doors off," the consultant added. "The debates have raised some doubt about Perry, but it's not like anything's not recoverable. But if you're looking at Romney, you're asking, 'Why hasn't this guy locked it up yet?'"

Political observers will have a better sense of just how much money has come off the sidelines in the middle of the next month. Each presidential campaign is required to report their fundraising hauls and itemized contributions and expenditures to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by Oct. 14. Those reports cover the campaigns' fundraising activities between the beginning of July and the end of this month. Those filings will also include new data about which mega-donors have contributed to candidates in the past three months.

Those reports themselves are a metric for the media and potential donors who are looking to gauge the strength of a given campaign. And Romney and Perry's totals could be tempered by donors who have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Those donors are generally seen as the same crowd that had pined throughout 2011 for new candidacies -- from, for instance, Sen. John Thune (R-SD), Govs. Haley Barbour (R-MS) and Mitch Daniels (R-IN), or Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) -- that never came to fruition.

Perry's campaign has sought to keep expectations low, setting a $10 million bar for itself to clear in a shortened third quarter (since Perry didn't become a candidate until early August). Romney, meanwhile, is looking to eclipse a $18 million haul for the second quarter, a total that far surpassed any other candidate, but which didn't quite meet the high expectations that had been set for his long-planned campaign.

Christie's potential fundraising base lies primarily in the New York Metro area, which includes a number of financial services professionals. If Christie declines to run, and donors are forced to choose, those supporters may flock to Romney, who's mined his business background to build his campaign war chest. But Republicans also caution that Romney and Perry have streams of revenue available to them beyond heavyweight donors who have declined to back a candidate so far. Romney is independently wealthy and could self-finance (though he's said he isn't interested in doing that), and has access to a network of wealthy Mormon business owners. Perry, meanwhile, has a deep fundraising network cultivated during years of statewide races in Texas. Perry’s brief stint as Republican Governors Association chairman, from which he stepped down to run for president, also helped expose him to a national fundraising network.

Speculation is on the rise that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will jump into the 2012 race. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.