By Kim Dixon and Karen Brooks
WASHINGTON/AUSTIN (Reuters) - Texas Governor Rick Perry raised $17 million in his first fundraising quarter since joining the race for the Republican presidential nomination, the campaign said on Wednesday, likely topping rival Mitt Romney for the period.
Perry's camp also reported an impressive $15 million in cash on hand. His advisers had set an internal goal of raising $10 million that was widely reported.
"Team Perry understands the cardinal rule of politics - under-sell and over-deliver," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist who has donated to Perry in the past.
Perry jumped in the race less than two months ago and has been fundraising furiously. He led polls after joining the field but his support has dropped recently after missteps, including a disappointing debate performance in Florida.
"Improving his debate performance is key for a lot of his would-be financial backers," O'Connell said.
Concern over Perry's candidacy led some prominent Republicans to court New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to join the race. But Christie said on Tuesday he would not run.
Romney and Perry have tried to downplay fundraising expectations for the third quarter, which is typically a weak quarter as it falls during the summer vacation period.
At the same time, a candidate's first fundraising quarter after joining the race is typically strong.
Still, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said: "It's less than what Mitt Romney raised in the first quarter, and we feel good in the strength of our finance team and the fact that we are adding new people every day."
Romney, who has regained first place in national polls, is expected to raise considerably less than his $18 million second-quarter haul, according to campaign officials.
The 2012 election will likely be the priciest ever. President Barack Obama raised $47 million in his first fundraising period, plus nearly $40 million from the Democratic National Committee, after raising record funds in 2008.
Neither the Romney nor Obama campaigns have released details on their third-quarter reports.
Perry has been a formidable fundraiser in his Texas races but there are still questions as to whether he could translate that into national strength. There are no limits on donations in Texas, whereas individuals can only give a total of $5,000 for the presidential campaign.
"I don't think that anyone would have doubted that Governor Perry could reach out to an already established network of people with deep pockets," in his first quarter, said Michael Malbin, a campaign finance expert at the Campaign Finance Institute.
"We won't know until the reports come out how many of these people maxed out and can't come back again," he said.
Full data is due to regulators by October 15.
Nearly three-quarters of Romney's campaign cash thus far has come from individual donors who cannot give again until the general election.
Obama, by contrast, had less than 20 percent of his campaign funds come from donors who reached the federal limits.
Small donors are vital to sustain a campaign, Malbin said, and also important organizationally to recruit volunteers.
(Editing by Eric Beech)