Mitt Romney and Foster Friess, a wealthy donor to conservative causes, were walking out of an event together a few months ago when Mr. Friess broke the news: After backing Mr. Romney for president four years ago, he was getting behind Rick Santorum this time around.
“He couldn’t quite figure out why Rick was even bothering to go through the effort,” Mr. Friess recalled in an interview on Wednesday. “I mean, I don’t mean to fault him for saying, ‘Why take Rick seriously?’ Nobody took Rick seriously.”
Many more Republicans are taking Mr. Santorum seriously now, thanks to his victories in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado on Tuesday — and perhaps none more than Mr. Romney, for whom Mr. Santorum’s unexpected rise poses another threat from the right.
Few people played a more pivotal role in Tuesday’s turn of events than Mr. Friess. An investor who made millions in mutual funds and now lives in Wyoming, he is the chief backer of a “super PAC” that has helped keep Mr. Santorum’s candidacy alive by running television advertisements on his behalf.
His role as outside funder — one that Mr. Friess indicated he would continue to play in the contests ahead — escalates the battle among a few dozen wealthy Republicans to influence their party’s choice of a presidential nominee.
They are exploiting changes to campaign laws and regulations that have allowed wealthy individuals and businesses to pool unlimited contributions into super PACs that in turn have inundated the airwaves with negative advertisements.
Mr. Friess’s chosen outlet, called the Red, White and Blue Fund, provided critical support for Mr. Santorum as he successfully sought to resuscitate his campaign with victories in Tuesday’s contests. At a time when Mr. Santorum could not afford to pay for a single commercial of his own, the Red, White and Blue Fund focused in particular on Minnesota, where the super PAC supporting Mr. Romney, Restore Our Future, broadcast a last-minute blitz of advertising against him, according to an analysis from Kantar Media/CMAG.
But Mr. Friess’s help could prove even more vital in the weeks ahead, as Mr. Santorum tries to capitalize on his upset victories on Tuesday to mount a more assertive challenge to Mr. Romney and to Newt Gingrich, who has an even more deep-pocketed supporter in the billionaire casino executive Sheldon Adelson, one of the richest men in country.
Michael Biundo, Mr. Santorum’s campaign manager, said the Red, White and Blue Fund had been helpful not just with television commercials but also with a phone bank operation that helped drive Santorum-friendly voters to the polls in Denver. While he said the campaign was receiving an influx of new donations after Tuesday’s victories, “anytime anybody wants to help us, we’ll take it.”
"“If my wife finds out how much I put into the campaign and Santorum doesn’t win, you’re basically talking suicide.”"
Mr. Friess’s personal Web site calls him “The Man Atop the Horse”; his father was a horse and cattle trader. He is relatively rare among the major backers of super PACs for his close association with the religious conservative movement. His Web site quotes Scripture, and he often says that God is “the chairman of my board.”
He is also rare for his willingness to speak openly about his political giving, a break from Mr. Adelson, who has not spoken publicly about his donations of $10 million, with his wife, to the super PAC supporting Mr. Gingrich.
“There are not many donors who are really willing to be out there as such an advocate,” said the founder of Red, White and Blue, Nick Ryan. “It takes a little bit of the cloak and dagger out of the whole thing.”
Campaign filings show that Mr. Friess has given the Red, White and Blue Fund more than 40 percent of its financing as of Dec. 31, or $331,000. He said he had subsequently given more. But he would not say how much, or how much more he may give in the future, joking, “If my wife finds out how much I put into the campaign and Santorum doesn’t win, you’re basically talking suicide.”
And he played down the significance of his giving, crediting Mr. Santorum with his own victories and noting that another donor — whom he would not name — had chipped in $1 million to the fund and was talking about giving more as of Wednesday morning.
Mr. Friess, 71, said that he liked Mr. Santorum for his faith, but that he also believed he was the best candidate to compete with President Obama, whom he blamed for excessive government. He said he came to know Mr. Santorum several years ago and particularly approved of his opposition to abortion rights and his hawkish foreign policy stance.
“I guess the point I want to make is I’m not supporting him for how I’ve known him as a friend,” said Mr. Friess, who has joined Mr. Santorum on the campaign trail. “I’m supporting him because he has the best chance to beat Barack Obama.”
Asked what compelled him to give so much, he said: “No. 1, I think of all the guys that strap a gun on their backs and head to Afghanistan and Iraq to keep us free and safe and maintain what America has stood for. If I put up a million bucks or whatever, it doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice.”
Like donors to rival super PACs, Mr. Friess ranks among the country’s leading patrons of Republican and conservative causes. He has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party and candidates in recent years, including to Mr. Santorum’s two chief rivals for the presidential nomination, Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich, to whom Mr. Friess donated last spring. Late last year, Mr. Friess gave $100,000 to Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin to help fend off a Democratic-led recall effort.
He said during the interview Wednesday that he had spoken to Mr. Adelson recently. And he has also been an ally of the billionaire Koch brothers, perhaps the leading financiers of conservative causes in the nation. He has attended the Kochs’ semiannual retreats for major donors, including the most recent one, held late last month at a resort in California, and like them has donated to Tea Party-inspired candidates and groups, including the Tea Party Express political action committee.
He is known to be particularly generous even by the standards of the more generous Republican donors.
Fred V. Malek, a prominent Republican donor and fund-raiser for the Republican Governors Association, recalled Mr. Friess’s attendance at a 2009 meeting at which the group asked each of those present to make a five-figure donation as it grappled with Mr. Obama’s victory and forthcoming races in New Jersey and Virginia.
“Foster got up and said, ‘I’m up for four years, and I’ll pay in advance,’ ” Mr. Malek said.
While reluctant to take too much credit for helping Mr. Santorum, Mr. Friess said he believed that the candidate’s recent success may allow him to raise more money for his campaign and become less reliant on outside backers. But asked if he would be prompted to donate more to the super PAC if Mr. Romney and the super PAC supporting him stepped up attacks on Mr. Santorum, Mr. Friess seemed to relish the prospect.
“Well, I think that if he does that it is so exciting,” he said, “because it finally recognizes that Rick Santorum is a threat.”