(Corrects Griffin figure to $1 million from $950,000 in paragraph 12)
By Alina Selyukh and Alexander Cohen
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Mitt Romney raised nearly $12.6 million in March, h is best fund-raising month yet, and the “Super PAC” backing him raised $8.7 million, even before the Republican front-runner and his allies began to amass cash in earnest for the costly fight to unseat Democratic President Barack Obama.
Romney had nearly $10.1 million in the bank, his campaign said on Friday, as he sought to wrap up the nomination and focus on raising money for the November 6 election.
The $12.6 million came at a time when Romney was still facing stiff competition from his last big conservative challenger, Rick Santorum, who has now dropped out of the race.
Since then, Romney has also begun raising money jointly with the Republican National Committee. The joint fund greatly increases how much a donor can give to help a candidate, thanks to larger contributions allowed for party organizations in addition to the campaign. Those figures have yet to be released.
Both Republicans and Democrats are waging a war to raise as much money as possible to fund crucial television and radio air time and get-out-the-vote efforts.
“Mitt Romney’s continued strong fundraising shows that voters across the country are tired of the failures from President Obama,” said Romney finance chairman Spencer Szwick. “We will continue the hard work to raise the necessary funds to defeat President Obama and change the direction of the country.”
Obama and the Democratic National Committee, spared the strenuous nominating process faced by Romney, raised $53 million in March for the general election campaign.
DEMOCRATIC GROUPS LAGGING
But donations to outside Democratic groups have lagged those given to Republicans, a source of concern for Democrats.
Campaigns can take only $2,500 from each donor, once for the primary process and again for the general election. Super political action committees, or Super PACs, can take unlimited donations as long as they do not coordinate with the campaigns, and these have largely taken over the dirty task of negative advertising.
The pro-Obama Super PAC, Priorities USA Action, has struggled to catch up to the pro-Romney PAC Restore Our Future.
Restore Our Future on Friday reported raising $8.7 million in March, spent $12.7 million on knocking Santorum out of the race but still emerged with $6.5 million on hand.
The group’s biggest donors last month included Texas billionaire banker Harold Simmons, who gave another $600,000 for a total of $800,000; hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin of Citadel LLC, who gave $850,000 for a total of $1 million; and Huron Carbon LLC, which gave $1 million and shares an address in Florida with Oxbow Carbon, run by Bill Koch and itself a big donor to the Super PAC.
Other big donors included Charles Schwab Corp founder Charles Schwab and his wife Helen, Cisco Systems Inc Chairman and Chief Executive John Chambers, New Balance Athletics Chairman James Davis, Marriott International Inc CEO J.W. Marriott Jr. and his brother Richard Marriott, chairman of Host Hotels and Resorts Inc.
Priorities USA was due to report its March fundraising to the Federal Election Commission later on Friday.
MORE SUPER PAC HELP
Helping Romney bridge the gap between his money power and Obama’s is American Crossroads, perhaps the most formidable Republican Super PAC, which was co-founded by Karl Rove, former top aide and election strategist for President George W. Bush.
American Crossroads and its non-profit sister group Crossroads GPS have made plans to spend up to $300 million on this election cycle and by the end of March were two-thirds of the way to raising that sum, having hauled in $99.8 million over 2011 and the first quarter of 2012.
American Crossroads had $24.4 million left in cash on hand, a spokesman said, and its donors were due to be disclosed to the FEC on Friday. The non-profit Crossroads GPS is not legally required to report its fundraising or donors to the FEC.
The groups have been running ads slamming Obama, his policies and his party’s congressional candidates. The $300 million plan covers the efforts launched last year into the rest of the cycle, with two-thirds focusing on the presidential race and the rest on Senate and House of Representatives races.
One of Romney’s two rivals left in the Republican race is Texas Representative Ron Paul. His campaign’s FEC filing on Friday showed he raised $2.6 million and had $1.8 million left in cash on hand at the end of March.
The filings on Friday are also expected to shine some light on the debts run up by Rick Santorum leading up to his campaign exit last week, and by Newt Gingrich, who has vowed to stick around until Romney’s official nomination this summer despite his presidential campaign being in the red for weeks.
The Republican party also had its best month in March, raising $13.7 million and cutting back its debt to $9.9 million. The Democratic National Committee has not yet disclosed its numbers. Both are due to officially report to the FEC on Friday.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Scottsdale, Arizona; Editing by Eric Walsh)