By Emily Flitter
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Asked last week about his agenda if elected, presumptive Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker began: "Should I choose to be a candidate..."
Then he added with a grin: "My lawyers love it when I say that."
Like the other would-be Republican candidates who took the stage over three days in Washington at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the Wisconsin governor studiously avoided mentioning any plans for the 2016 presidential election.
The pantomime is crucial – it allows candidates to work closely with their funding organizations to rake in big money donations without breaking campaign finance laws. Once they launch their campaign or even say they are “testing the waters", they face far tighter restrictions on their fundraising.
Such verbal coquetry is not new in the four-yearly battle for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations.
But donors, campaign sources, and campaign finance reform advocates say it is having a much bigger payoff than in the 2012 election, allowing would-be candidates to delay their campaign launches, build up bigger war chests and forge close ties with their donor groups earlier than ever.
In a new development that is adding to fundraising and organizational clout, presumptive candidates this year are setting up and working closely with so-called super-PACS and other funding vehicles before they launch official campaigns.
That promises an advantage to some big-name candidates who take an aggressive early approach, and to those who do not currently hold office, since they face fewer restrictions.
“There’s a wealth primary underway and a clear sense that they have to maximize their own viability and the only way to maximize viability is money,” said David Donnelly, executive director of a non-profit group, Every Voice, which supports campaign finance reform efforts.
Election watchdog groups say the would-be candidates are making a mockery of campaign finance rules by clearly "testing the waters" for a run even as they strenuously avoid saying so.
The strategy has allowed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, for example, to embark on an undeclared national campaign that has vacuumed up what media reports have said is a huge sum, though his aides refuse to discuss how much he has raised. Some have characterized Bush’s fundraising push "shock and awe" offensive to deter his rivals.
PACs are advocacy groups that pool campaign contributions. Traditionally, donors who contribute through PACs face limits on the amount they can give to help elect or defeat candidates. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision gave rise to super-PACs, which can't contribute directly to candidates, but have no limit on their spending independent of the campaign.
Under federal campaign rules, once candidates officially declare they are testing the waters or running, they must stop accepting "soft money" - donations from corporations and unions - and limit individual campaign donations to $2,700.
They must also stop any coordination of their public messages with the PACS, though the PACS can continue accepting unlimited donations from individuals and corporations.
A spokeswoman for Bush, Kristy Campbell, said his "Right to Rise" super-PAC was not paying for any “testing the waters” expenses, which the Federal Election Commission (FEC) defines as a range of activities from travel to determine a candidate's viability to expenses for carrying out polling.
A spokeswoman for Walker said he was not a candidate and that his PAC was only a vehicle to help him talk about his "bold reforms" as governor. A spokeswoman for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another presumed front-runner, declined comment.
A spokeswoman for the FEC declined to comment.
A TWINKLE IN HIS EYE
Fund-raising on the Democrat side has been less frenzied so far, with Hillary Clinton seen as the overwhelming favorite to become the nominee.
There is so far little public data on the amounts raised by the Republicans' "pre-campaigns", but anecdotal evidence and comments from campaign sources suggest the money is rolling in faster and earlier than usual.
Presumptive candidates, including Walker and Jeb Bush, have opened appearances one-on-one with big donors or before groups of donors – including at a $100,000 per plate Bush fundraising dinner - with a disclaimer saying they have not yet decided whether to run for president.
A Bush PAC staff member told a conference call with wealthy Texas donors this week that fundraising totals were exceeding the Bush team’s expectations, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
The current record for campaign funds raised in one quarter is $50 million by Jeb's brother George W. Bush in 2007, but many experts expect that to be outstripped this year by at least one candidate due to the broader use of PACs.
Several other candidates are closely coordinating with their outside political groups. One example: all media inquiries about Walker's campaign are being handled by his PAC, Our American Revival. Christie's presidential press calls are being fielded by his PAC.
George Pataki, a former New York governor who launched his own super-PAC in late January, has been meeting with donors and collecting money, but won't call himself a candidate. He went so far as to deliver a theatrical wink to one big donor in New York City while reciting the disclaimer about how he is not running.
"Perhaps it was a twinkle in his eye," said his spokesman David Catalfamo. "but Governor Pataki has said stated clearly and repeatedly that, but for our nation's arcane campaign finance laws, he could very well be a candidate for president right now."
(Editing By Stuart Grudgings)