One night last month, Mitt Romney strode into a dining room above Central Park that was packed with dozens of his wealthiest supporters, gathered there by a group of former campaign aides, to talk about his bid for the White House.
The event was not a fund-raiser for Mr. Romney’s campaign, however, but for Restore Our Future, a political action committee founded by his allies. And only when Mr. Romney left the room did one of the group’s officials stand up to brief the donors on their plans: to raise and spend millions of dollars in unrestricted campaign donations — something presidential candidates are forbidden to do themselves — to help elect Mr. Romney president.
Mr. Romney’s appearance underscored the increasingly blurry line between presidential candidates and the so-called Super PACs that have proliferated since a 2010Supreme Court ruling allowed independent groups to raise unlimited amounts to promote candidates.
Most of this year’s presidential candidates are now backed by one or more dedicated Super PACs. Unlike the broad-based independent groups backing multiple candidates that flooded last year’s Congressional elections with negative advertising — playing a role similar to that of traditional party committees — the new groups are each dedicated to the election of a single candidate.
The groups are typically founded by the candidates’ former aides, financed by the candidates’ top donors and implicitly blessed by the candidates themselves. And they are quickly beginning to rival the candidates’ own money operations in size and scope, setting off a fund-raising arms race that is changing the way presidential campaigns are financed and executed.
Restore Our Future is run by three veterans of Mr. Romney’s 2008 campaign team. They were recently joined by a fund-raiser who left Mr. Romney’s 2012 team, according to a report by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. Restore Our Future raised more than $12 million during the first half of the year — more than any actual Republican candidate except Mr. Romney himself.
A pair of aides to President Obama started Priorities USA, the leading Democratic Super PAC, just two months after they left their jobs at the White House in February. And two weeks ago, a onetime consultant to Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota took over Citizens for a Working America, a previously existing Super PAC, with plans to focus solely on electing Ms. Bachmann president.
On Thursday, Thomas E. Muir, an executive at the Huntsman Corporation, filed papers to form Our Destiny PAC, a Super PAC devoted to electing Jon M. Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor and the son of the corporation’s founder.
Make Us Great Again, a Super PAC founded late last month, is backed by Mike Toomey, a prominent lobbyist in Austin, Tex., who is a former chief of staff to Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. Mr. Toomey also owns a private New Hampshire island with Dave Carney, the top strategist for Mr. Perry’s nascent presidential campaign.
Federal Election Commission guidelines adopted in the wake of the Supreme Court decision prohibit independent groups from coordinating expenditures with their favored presidential candidates and limit how much candidates can directly help raise for the groups. And during Mr. Romney’s brief appearance before current and prospective donors to Restore Our Future, he made no appeal for money, according to participants.
Gail Gitcho, a Romney spokeswoman, declined to comment on the event, saying only that “any activity done by our campaign is done within the letter and the spirit of the law.”
In a statement, Jason Miller, a spokesman for Make Us Great Again, said the group would abide carefully by all federal restrictions.
“There is an absolute firewall between Make Us Great Again and the campaign, and there is no communication between the two regarding activities, plans or projects,” Mr. Miller said. “Everybody involved with our efforts, including Mike Toomey, is very careful about this.”
But some advocates for tighter campaign regulation say existing rules on independent groups did not anticipate the emergence of Super PACs so closely tied to a single candidate, leaving so much room to maneuver that the independent groups are able to act as surrogates for the candidates.
“There’s not a big difference between these candidate-specific Super PACs and candidate campaign committees,” said Paul S. Ryan, associate legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. “I think it’s a joke. What they are doing is abiding by the very meager restrictions on coordinations on expenditures and solicitations. But that leaves a wide swath of activities that can be fully coordinated under present law.”
Increasingly, the new Super PACs are taking on tasks that in previous years were handled by — and paid for — the candidates themselves. But instead of using money raised in the $2,500 increments that federal law imposes on candidates, the Super PACs can accept donations of unlimited amounts. (The groups must disclose their donors, though some Super PACs, including Priorities USA and the Karl Rove-founded American Crossroads, have affiliated nonprofit arms that do not have to disclose donors.)
Last month, before Mr. Perry even announced his candidacy, a Super PAC called Americans for Rick Perry spent just under $200,000 to organize a write-in campaign on his behalf for the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa, more money than was spent by some of the declared Republican candidates. More than half of the group’s money through the end of June came from Harold C. Simmons, a Dallas billionaire who is among Mr. Perry’s top all-time donors.
Another group, Jobs for Iowa, one of at least a half-dozen pro-Perry Super PACs now up and running, spent tens of thousands of dollars on advertisements in the state in early August, describing Mr. Perry as a “better option” for president.
Anticipating that Mr. Perry will have enough resources of his own to survive the early round of primaries and caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Americans for Rick Perry now plans to focus on recruiting supporters and building a social-media apparatus in the second round of 2012 primary states, according to Bob Schuman, a consultant involved with the group.
“What we’re trying to do is look down the line from the campaign’s standpoint and say, what can we do that they would like to but don’t have the time or resources to do?” Mr. Schuman said.
Privately, political operatives on both sides of the political divide said that the new Super PACs were likely to be the chief vehicle for negative advertisements against rivals, leaving each group’s favored candidate free to campaign more positively.
One Super PAC, Keep Conservatives United, ran advertisements in Iowa attacking Mr. Perry and promoting Mrs. Bachmann, who ultimately won the straw poll.
Bob Harris, a North Carolina political consultant who founded Keep Conservatives United, said he hoped to raise enough money to run television advertisements in South Carolina, a state where Mr. Perry and Mrs. Bachmann are expected to compete aggressively next year.
Early fund-raising suggests that the new groups are relying on a handful of wealthy donors capable of writing five-, six- and even seven-figure checks. According to a study published last week by the Center for Responsive Politics, more than 80 percent of money raised by Republican-leaning Super PACs this year came from just 35 donors.
Democratic-leaning Super PACs relied on an even smaller group, with more than 80 percent of contributions coming from just 23 donors.
“What took thousands of individual donations to make significant political advertisements in 2008 can now just take one phone call,” said Spencer MacColl, the study’s author.
The 2012 race is already being widely viewed as a laboratory for political operatives, some of whom say that Super PACs founded to support individual candidates may soon become a feature of Senate and even House races if they are used successfully — and without legal headaches — by allies of the presidential candidates.
“It’s Christmas for consultants,” said one Republican operative, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the enthusiasm among fellow consultants for the groups. “People are just starting to get it. It’s completely unlimited. And it’s going to change everything.”