$100 million? Jeb Bush's high expectations problem

Jeb Bush
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Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush has an expectations problem. Big donors around Wall Street and in Washington are now speculating privately that the former Florida governor could raise well north of $100 million in the first quarter of this year, a giant sum that would wow the political world and strike fear in Bush's opponents.

But people close to the campaign are now talking down that number, saying it's crazy to expect Bush's Right to Rise political action committees to exceed $100 million. Those people note that Mitt Romney's "Restore our Future" PAC spent just $43 million in the entire 2012 primary.

"The whispers in the air are not at all accurate. The PAC's goals are far more modest," Right to Rise spokesman Tim Miller said.

The problem for Bush stems from the enormous success he has had so far in mounting multiple high-dollar fundraisers on Wall Street and around the country. He's raised money at $100,000-per-head events and higher at Henry Kravis' apartment on Park Ave., with multiple current and former Goldman Sachs executives this week in New York and at similar events nationwide.

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"He is literally vacuuming up cash everywhere he goes," one financial services industry executive said to me this week. "So $100 million or more wouldn't surprise me." Others who have gone to Bush events made similar comments, saying initial speculation of up to $70 million sounded low.

Those people do not have access to Right to Rise's books and are only speculating based on what they and their friends have already given. They could turn out to be significantly overestimating. It would not be the first time people on Wall Street got their figures wrong.

But the fact that people are talking this way illustrates a problem for Bush. He now carries the expectations of a perceived front-runner whose biggest advantage at this early stage is the ability to raise vast sums of money from the GOP establishment.

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As an undeclared candidate, Bush can raise super PAC money in unlimited sums and can appear and speak at super PAC events. Once he announces, he can no longer have any connection to the super PAC and will be far more limited in what he can raise at events at which he appears.

Should the Bush first-quarter number come in much lower than expectations (yes, he sounds like a publicly traded company), a story line could emerge that he is under-performing and might not be the financial juggernaut people expected. That won't really be true because, whatever the number, Bush is likely to raise far more than any other prospective candidate.

But the media craves a new angle and a lower-than-expected Bush number would provide one. So it was no surprise that Bush advisers reacted angrily when I first wrote of the $100 million-plus figure in Politico. Mike Murphy, a senior Bush adviser tweeted: "Everything in 'mind meld' piece this am is wrong."

The last thing the Bush campaign wants is for the $100 million figure to catch hold, so a strong pushback was to be expected. The other item that Murphy rejected said that Bush does not view Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as ultimately his main competition, even though Walker is the leader in some early state polls.

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A person close to the governor told me Bush views Walker as a skilled politician but not one with the depth and breadth of understanding on foreign and domestic policy to go the distance in 2016. This person told me Bush views someone else as likely to emerge as the more conservative alternative. Another Bush source, however, said it was far too early to speculate on how well Walker will do as the campaign heats up.

But the bigger issue is clearly the money. And here, the Bush pre-campaign is a victim of its own success. You can't gobble up giant piles of cash and not get people excited about how much you will ultimately raise. Sadly, we may not know how close the whisper number is to accurate until July 15, the deadline for the super PAC to file disclosure statements. Until then, speculation will run rampant. Or the number could come close to $100 million, and the Bush campaign could decide to announce early and freak out the rest of the field.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.