By Eric Johnson and Alina Selyukh
(Reuters) - President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party had their best fundraising month of the campaign cycle in September, raising substantially more than in August and perhaps reaching $150 million or more, according to several major campaign fund-raisers.
The news of a strong fundraising month comes at a time when Obama is trying to shake off criticism of his subdued performance at the first debate against Republican challenger Mitt Romney on Wednesday.
Three people raising thousands of dollars for the campaign said they expected Obama's team to reveal they and the Democratic National Committee had raised substantially more than the $114 million they did in August.
The three sources, who are closely involved in the finance operation, said the campaign has set a goal of duplicating September's total in October - a goal that, if achieved, would set the Democratic allies on track to reaching an unprecedented haul of $1 billion for the 2012 cycle.
"People are fired up for Obama," said Steve Westly, a former California State Controller and major campaign fund-raiser. "Obama has the facts on his side, the economy is improving and our side is larger than their side. Mr. Romney, to a large extent, is going to run out of time."
Helping buoy Obama's fundraising in September was the party convention and a modest lead in the polls over Romney, whose campaign was plagued by his remark that the 47 percent of the population who receive government funds are "victims."
Obama campaign officials did not want to comment on specific numbers but said that last month was a record for September. That would mean it beat the September 2008 result when the campaign itself raised $150.7 million, and together with the DNC it brought in $193 million.
The Obama campaign on its own in the 2008 cycle set a record of $750 million and total fundraising was just under $1 billion when combined with the DNC.
By the end of August, the latest public data available, Obama and the Democratic National Committee had raised a cumulative total of roughly $742 million compared to roughly $630 million raised by Romney and the Republican National Committee, according to federal disclosures and news releases.
Those totals do not include the cash raised by outside "Super PAC" groups that can bring in unlimited funds but cannot coordinate with official campaigns. While Republican Super PACs far outpace Democratic groups, the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA Action has seen its fundraising notably tick up in recent weeks. Through the end of August it reported raising a total of $34.8 million.
In this bitterly fought race for the White House, on track to be the costliest in U.S. history, campaigns must fill their war chests with enough cash to make expensive media buys and wage on-the-ground operations in the nine or so swing states likely to determine the outcome of the November 6 election.
HIGHER $$ GOAL
In August, Obama and the DNC raised more than $114 million, narrowly beating Romney's $111 million. That followed three months when Romney far outraised the incumbent.
Originally, Obama's team had a goal of raising a total of $800 million for the 2012 campaign, several fund-raisers said. But when wealthy Republicans such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson began writing seven-figure checks to Romney's outside Super PAC backers, the campaign told fund-raisers it needed at least $100 million more than its original goal, one donor said.
Romney gained ground against Obama in a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Friday that showed the president's lead at just two percentage points, down from a six point lead before the debate.
Several donors echoed the criticisms Obama has faced in the past two days over the debate, that he did not raise issues such as Romney's opposition to the auto bailout, his jobs record as a private equity executive or his "47 percent" comments.
"Everybody I talked to the morning after the debate was like... what happened?," said one major fund-raiser from Ohio.
Another big fund-raiser, however, said that the debate actually helped him bring in more cash.
"Last night, people thought the president did not find his voice the way he should, and that made them a little worried. So they threw in more money to make sure that that doesn't hurt us," said the fund-raiser who is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.
(Reporting by Eric Johnson in Cincinnati, Ohio and Alina Selyukh in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell and Claudia Parsons)