By Kim Dixon
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - At least one well-heeled backer of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie shifted support to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney on Tuesday after Christie declined to join the Republican presidential race, and others are expected to follow.
After Christie's announcement, Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone signed up with the Romney camp, according to the campaign.
Langone, industrialist David Koch and hedge fund giant Paul Singer were among the elite fund-raisers who implored the Christie to seek the Republican nomination to run against President Barack Obama in 2012.
Other major donors have been on the fence waiting for the Republican race to shake out, with Romney and Texas Governor Rick Perry trading front-runner status, as others emerge and fall.
With Christie out of the race and the field largely set, signs are that Romney will be the biggest benefactor, some fund-raisers and analysts said.
"This is a good day for Mitt Romney," said a major fundraiser for former President George W. Bush, a Republican, who asked not to be identified so he could speak freely. "Maybe some of them will go for Perry but I doubt it."
Some of the high-profile fans of Christie were backers of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in his presidential bids. Giuliani, a prolific fundraiser in 2008 before his campaign fizzled, is a social moderate and fiscal conservative, akin to Romney.
Romney and Perry are each now attracting about 23 percent of Republican voter support, according to an average of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics.
Romney and Perry are also close in the money race. Their campaigns must release third-quarter fundraising figures by October 15, and both are expected to raise between $10 million and $15 million.
Both are aggressively courting big donors, who will be vital to mounting a national campaign next year and going up against a Democratic president who broke fundraising records in 2008.
BACK AND FORTH RACE
Romney was the early front-runner in the race for the nomination to oppose Obama's re-election bid, but he faded when Perry entered the race in August, in part due to conservatives' unease over his moderate record.
But Perry's fortunes have faded in turn, hit by weak debate performances and verbal gaffes that raised questions for some big donors about his ability to beat Obama.
"We're a little schizophrenic in the party right now," said Ed Rogers, who was an aide to former Republican President George H.W. Bush.
"My sense always was that (the Christie speculation) was a lot of media hype and a few very rich men in New York City who wanted Superman to come out of the heavens," said Brian Ballard, a Romney fundraiser in Florida.
The 2012 campaign is expected to be the priciest ever, with several billions of dollars spent, in the wake of court rulings that dramatically loosened campaign finance restrictions.
Obama is now seen as vulnerable with the weak economy and polls showing fewer than 45 percent of Americans approve of his job performance, but he is off to a strong fundraising start.
His campaign had raised $47 million by June 30, dwarfing all Republican contenders. He also has $38 million from the Democratic National Committee at his disposal.
But those with ties to big business are especially anxious to unseat Obama.
Christie backer billionaire Langone asked Obama in a cable television town hall last year to "not make people in business feel like we're villains or criminals or doing something wrong."
Hedge fund executive Singer is also a Giuliani backer and helped drive him to fundraising success in 2008.
Among the other Christie backers are Koch, who runs the oil and industrial conglomerate Koch Industries, which funds many conservative causes, including Tea Party groups.
Still, Koch gave the maximum amount to Romney's presidential campaign in 2008.
(Reporting by Kim Dixon, editing by Vicki Allen)