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PALM BEACH, Fla. — Instead of the corn dogs and pork chops on a stick ritually served up on the hustings of Iowa, the latest stop on the donor trail featured meals of diver scallops and chocolate mousse. The setting was the Breakers, a sprawling Italian Renaissance-inspired hotel here, where the cheapest available rooms fetched $800 a night. And for the half-dozen Republican presidential candidates invited to the annual winter meeting this weekend of the Club for Growth, an influential bloc of deep-pocketed conservatives, the prize was not votes. It was money.
Long before the season of baby-kissing and caucus-going begins in early primary states, a no less decisive series of contests is playing out among the potential 2016 contenders along a trail that traces the cold-weather destinations of the wealthy and private-jet-equipped. In one resort town after another — Rancho Mirage, Calif.; Sea Island, Ga.; Las Vegas — the candidates are making their cases to exclusive gatherings of donors whose wealth, fully unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, has granted them the kind of influence and convening power once held by urban political bosses and party chairmen.
Even a single deep-pocketed donor can now summon virtually the entire field of candidates. No fewer than 11 Republican White House hopefuls will fly to Iowa this week to attend the Iowa Agriculture Summit organized by Bruce Rastetter, a businessman and prominent “super PAC” donor. Each will submit to questions from Mr. Rastetter, who said he wanted the candidates to educate themselves on agriculture policy.
“I get it that it’s helpful that I’ve given nationally and been helpful in Iowa to different candidates,” said Mr. Rastetter, whose business interests range from meat processing to ethanol production, and who is not yet backing anyone for president. “They know I’m going to be a fair arbiter in this,” he added. “We’re going to have a good discussion around these issues.”
High season on the shadow campaign trail informally began in Coachella Valley in California the weekend before the Super Bowl, near the end of January, when Charles G. and David H. Koch hosted their annual seminar for a few hundred libertarian-minded donors. It continues through the early spring, when the Republican Jewish Coalition, a pro-Israel group bankrolled by the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, holds its annual meeting in Las Vegas, this year at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino.
In between are a number of other gatherings of donors, representing overlapping clubs of the wealthy with particular passions and interests. Some are informal gatherings, like a daylong meeting last Tuesday near Jackson Hole, Wyo., hosted by the TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts and his son Todd, and featuring several Republican donors who favorsame-sex marriage and immigration reform. Others, like the Club for Growth’s conference here in Palm Beach, have been around in one shape or another for years, forming part of the longtime invisible primary for the allegiance of dono
But the high-dollar donor trail has taken on far more importance in recent years because of the Citizens United case and the super PACs for which the decision cleared the way. Candidates attend knowing that just a handful of donors can lift them from the second or third tier into the first. For Jeb Bush, who has spent much of the past two months meeting privately with potential donors, occasionally posting photos on Instagram taken from outside private equity firms and investment banks, Mr. Rastetter’s Iowa meeting will be his first official trip to the critical caucus state.
“They’re here to help themselves,” said David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth. “And it’s a testimony that they think the club’s an important place to be in order to be the standard-bearer.”
Some of the gatherings are expressly intended to bring candidates in line with the policy positions of donors on issues like government spending and foreign policy. While Mr. Rastetter’s agriculture forum will cover a range of issues, much of the advocacy surrounding the event, including a “V.I.P. press reception” featuring Iowa’s Republican governor, is aimed at pushing the candidates to support the Renewable Fuel Standard, which is coveted by the ethanol industry.
Mr. McIntosh noted that the donors attending the Palm Beach event — among them Robert Mercer, a publicity-shy hedge fund executive, and John Childs, a Florida-based investor — had helped unseat numerous Republican lawmakers deemed soft on taxes, spending or free trade. The goal of the event, Mr. McIntosh said, was to “lay the plans for affecting both the policy debate and the elections in 2016.”
The season of donor events poses hurdles both logistical and ideological: Mr. Bush, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas all sought to attend both the Palm Beach gathering and the overlapping Conservative Political Action Conference, held just outside Washington. Mr. Walker’s appearances at donor conclaves will take him back and forth across the country several times between late January and early March.
In an interview, Mr. Walker said he was unconcerned about the appearance of spending so much time and energy courting donors, noting that he expected to do plenty of retail campaigning in the months ahead.
“Oh, I think along the way I’ll be at plenty of dairy events and farm events and factories just like when I was governor,” Mr. Walker said.
Some skip the time-consuming cattle calls in favor of a more targeted approach, wooing a handful of donors they know personally. Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who has pitched himself as a lunch-pail conservative, will attend the Iowa meeting but has otherwise passed up most of the gatherings.
“You have to understand what is the best use of your candidate’s time, and their appeal, and who is going to gravitate towards the candidate,” said Matt Beynon, an aide to Mr. Santorum. “The senator can identify who his folks may be — and in many instances knows who they are.”
For Democrats, who have not had a contested presidential primary since the Citizens United decision, the shadow campaign trail is less demanding, and the overwhelming favorite, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is under less pressure than her Republican opponents.
High-profile Democrats, including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have appeared at meetings of the Democracy Alliance, a club of liberal donors. And Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmental activist who emerged as the leading super PAC donor in the country in 2014, is planning a series of meetings in response to the Koch brothers’ spending that are intended to get the candidates to commit to specific policies to combat climate change.
For Republican candidates and their aides, the donor gatherings sometimes have the feel of a command performance. While candidates did not attend the Ricketts meeting, a half-dozen of them — including Mr. Bush, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey — were invited to send high-ranking representatives. They were given 30 minutes each to make a case to the assembled donors, including the investor Paul Singer; Linda McMahon, the Connecticut wrestling magnate; and Charles R. Schwab, founder of one of the country’s largest financial services firms.
The presenters were not told ahead of time who would be there, and at least two were surprised to find former Vice President Dick Cheney among the guests. Afterward, the rival campaign strategists shared a slightly awkward drink with one another, before joining the assembled donors for a group dinner.
They had little choice, according to one Republican who attended, and who asked for anonymity so as not to offend any of the donors. “This is going to be the super PAC election,” he said.