By Kim Dixon
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Texas Governor Rick Perry, already besting Mitt Romney in opinion polls, is likely to match or surpass him in the Republican presidential money race when new figures come out in coming weeks, backers say.
Perry's meteoric rise in the polls since jumping in the race last month and his thick Rolodex of wealthy Texan backers as a three-term governor are key drivers making him a fundraising force against Romney.
Brian Ballard, a Florida lawyer who raises money for Romney, acknowledged that Perry may well pull ahead in the third quarter, which ends next week.
"I expect he'll raise a ton of dough," he said. "I imagine he'll be the person leading the quarter because he has an untapped reservoir of Texas money," said Ballard, who was John McCain's Florida fundraising chair in the 2008 campaign.
Perry has told his financial backers he wants to raise at least $10 million this quarter, several of his fundraisers said. That target may well be too low, according to two Perry fundraisers.
"I think you'll see the September 30 report will have bragging rights associated with it," said a prominent Perry fundraiser, who was not authorized to speak for the campaign.
It is unclear what former Massachusetts governor Romney's goal for this quarter is. He raised $18 million in the previous quarter but, like most candidates, is likely to see a seasonal drop as fundraising falls in the summer before an election year.
At least 400 high-powered "bundlers" have signed up to help Perry, the fundraiser said, making him competitive with Romney among high-end donors. Bundlers commit to raise set amounts of cash -- in Perry's case from $50,000 to $500,000.
Heading into Thursday's Republican primary debate, Perry is leading Romney by 8.5 percentage points, in an average of national polls compiled by Real Clear Politics.
"My experience has been when a candidate is leading in the polls they can usually get people to listen," said Bill Scherer, a Florida attorney helping Perry raise money, as he did for former president George W. Bush. "I expect we'll raise as much money as Mr. Romney."
Perry, a conservative who appeals to Tea Party followers, has started well but it could be difficult to keep up that pace as he comes under attack from rival candidates.
"The first quarter of your campaign is usually the easiest and then real life sets in," Ballard said.
Perry, who shook up a recent Republican debate by calling Social Security a "Ponzi scheme," was in New York on Monday night and travels to Washington next week to charm the Republican establishment.
The successful Republican candidate will need a hefty warchest to face Obama, despite the president's flagging approval ratings. His campaign raised $47 million in the second quarter and another $38 million for the Democratic National Committee.
SMALL, BIG DONORS
The long summer break makes the third quarter before an election year a dry fundraising period. Donations dropped by more than half for Romney, Obama and McCain four years ago.
At least two Romney fundraisers said it is possible that his numbers will drop this quarter.
"I would not anticipate it would be the same as the first - it usually drops from the second," one Romney bundler said. "There are not enough days to have events."
A third Romney fundraiser was more optimistic and said Romney got a bump in donations when Perry initially entered, citing the conventional wisdom that Romney is a better general election candidate against Obama.
Veterans say you need a healthy combination of big bundlers and small devoted backers to sustain a national campaign, by giving again and again. Obama has been able to attract a large number of both small and big donations.
Hillary Clinton's over-reliance on big donors who reached federal limits early led her primary campaign into trouble against Obama in the 2008 Democratic race.
This could be a problem for Romney because about three-quarter of his donations were $2,500 in the second quarter -- the legal limit to give to a primary campaign. Perry is also used to securing big chunks of money since Texas has no limits on contributions.
Third-quarter fundraising totals are due October 15, although the campaigns often leak out top-line numbers before.
(Editing by Bill Trott)