By Kim Dixon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Money is not flowing from people on Wall Street to presidential candidates as freely as in the last White House race, with Republican Mitt Romney outpacing President Barack Obama in the chase for a shrunken pot of cash.

Donations from executives and others in the financial sector are down sharply in the 2012 race compared to the same point in the 2008 race won by the Democrat Obama.

By this point in 2007, $72 million had been donated to White House hopefuls by this group, compared to just $15 million this year, data compiled by the nonpartisan group Center for Responsive Politics showed.

Gaining support from people on Wall Street could be play a key role in determining the financial strength of a candidate in a presidential race expected to be the costliest on record.

Romney has attracted nearly twice as much money as Obama. He is well acquainted with Wall Street, having co-founded Bain Capital, a private equity firm that executed leveraged buyouts and corporate turnarounds.

Romney has taken in $7.5 million this year from those in firms such as Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and others in the financial sector and related businesses, compared to about $3.9 million for Obama, the Center for Responsive Politics said.

At this point in the last election cycle, both Romney and Obama had raised about $12 million from people in this sector.

Companies themselves cannot by law give directly to candidates, but individual campaign donors list their employer when donating in increments of $200 or more.

Among all the business sectors in the United States, the financial industry -- banks, securities firms, insurance companies and the like -- represents the biggest source of cash for presidential candidates.

"Romney may be Wall Street's favorite candidate at the moment but it doesn't necessarily mean that Wall street is enamored with the candidates overall," said Costas Panagopoulos, director of an elections project at Fordham University in New York.

There are varying theories for why the cash is not flowing like it did last time around, including the relentlessly bad economy and lack of enthusiasm about the candidates.

'LEVEL OF MISTRUST'

Obama had success drawing donations from Wall Street types in the 2008 election. Duplicating that feat may be tough. Many on Wall Street were dismayed over the financial regulation law that Obama signed after being elected, and others took exception to the president's reference to "fat cat" bankers.

Obama also has expressed sympathy for protesters with the Occupy Wall Street movement who have decried the practices of the U.S. financial sector.

"The level of mistrust between him (Obama) and the investment community may be the greatest in our lifetime," said Greg Valliere, an analyst who follows Washington for investors at Potomac Research in Washington.

The president is facing a tough fight to win a second term in office in the November 2012 election, struggling with low job approval ratings with U.S. unemployment stuck above 9 percent and discontent among his liberal base.

Thus far, Obama's overall fundraising has far outstripped the Republicans seeking their party's nomination to run against him next year -- pulling in $156 million so far this year.

Obama set a record in 2008 when he raised about $750 million for his campaign.

Romney ran unsuccessfully for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. He has been near or at the top of the Republican field so far in this campaign. The Romney campaign has pulled in about $32 million this year. The Wall Street cash has accounted for nearly a quarter of his fundraising.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, also has outpaced Texas Governor Rick Perry, the best-funded of the other Republican White House hopefuls, in cash from the finance world. Perry has drawn nearly $2 million in such money.

The edge in Wall Street cash may be a double-edged sword, given public frustration with the financial sector and other parts of the business world.

"The last thing you want in the current political climate is to give the perception that your campaign is bankrolled by Wall Street," Panagopoulos said. "Voters know that donors give to candidates expecting something in return."

Obama enjoys support of some influential Wall Street leaders. Hedge fund executive Orin Kramer and investment bank Evercore founder Roger Altman are among those raising funds for his re-election.

Romney has been most successful with Goldman employees, raising at least $292,000 from then, according to a separate analysis done for Reuters by the Sunlight Foundation.

Obama has raised at least $14,000 from Goldman employees. In 2008, Goldman employees were his second-biggest source of campaign cash, after workers at the University of California.