Candidates have their hands out

Times Staff Writer

With nearly two dozen contenders jostling for an early edge in the 2008 race for the White House, governors, senators and others eyeing a presidential run are already elbowing their way into the good graces of California’s big-money donors.

The wide-open field in both major parties has intensified the quiet but fierce competition of White House hopefuls turning on the charm at private gatherings in Hollywood homes, Silicon Valley boardrooms and hotels around the state. This month alone, seven would-be presidents have swept through California, nearly all of them scouting for money.

Last week, it was Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, who wooed potential donors at the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel, then went prospecting for more in San Diego and San Francisco.

The week before, Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Democrat, raised money at the Brentwood home of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s chief executive, Michael Lynton, then dashed to the Bay Area to collect more in Palo Alto and San Francisco.

The week before that, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic Party’s star of the moment, spent two hours mingling with a Hollywood A-list crowd at the Westside home of Endeavor talent agency partner Ariel Emanuel. Among the guests: actor Ben Affleck, comedian Larry David and television mogul Norman Lear.

In keeping with protocol for a new entry in California’s presidential money pageant, Obama, who is still weighing whether to run, did not collect money at the cocktail party. Nor did Romney at his reception in Beverly Hills.

“Your first couple times in, that’s often what you do ... a friend-raiser,” said Ken Khachigian, a California Republican strategist who was a senior political advisor to Ronald Reagan.

California’s status as a premiere destination for politicians seeking money is well earned. It provided $241 million to federal candidates in the 2004 elections -- the last fully tallied -- according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign money. That was well ahead of the No. 2 state, New York, which produced $178 million.

Democrats captured most of that California money. But with its vast wealth, California was still the top source of donations to Republicans too, ranking just above Texas.

So for months, the Republicans jockeying in the 2008 presidential run-up have journeyed over and over to California to curry favor among the state’s top GOP donors and fundraisers.

Los Angeles investment banker Bradford M. Freeman, who led President Bush’s pursuit of California money, said every Republican contender for 2008 has already made overtures to him, so far to no avail.

“I’m just sort of laying in the weeds right now,” he said.

Of the Republicans laying presidential campaign groundwork, Arizona Sen. John McCain has the strongest ties to California donors. Over the last decade, he has raised more than $4 million in the state.

On Thursday, McCain’s presidential exploratory committee added two of California’s top donors to his team of national finance co-chairmen: Donald Bren, chairman of Irvine Co., and A. Jerrold Perenchio, chairman and chief executive of Univision Communications Inc.

Other Republicans whose history of collecting California money could boost a White House run include former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, New York Gov. George Pataki and Rep. Duncan Hunter of El Cajon.

For Romney, the Massachusetts governor trying to mount a conservative challenge to better-known moderates, the three-day visit to California last week offered a chance to narrow his rivals’ head start. Among the prominent California supporters helping to introduce him to donors was major Bush fundraiser Rick Caruso, builder of the Grove shopping mall in Los Angeles.

For Democrats, the betting among many donors is that Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York -- if they enter the race -- will dominate the early money scramble.

Clinton has a big lead: The former first lady has raised more than $7.4 million in California since she first ran for Senate in 2000. Much of the fundraising machine built by former President Clinton remains at her disposal.

“Nobody has the base that Hillary Clinton has in terms of raising money in California,” said Los Angeles investment banker John Emerson, who oversaw California matters in the Clinton White House.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts raised nearly $34 million in California over the last 10 years, but donors say the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee would struggle to raise a fraction of that if he runs again.

As a senator for a brief two years, Obama has less of a California base but has created “tremendous buzz” among Democratic contributors, particularly in Hollywood, said Andy Spahn, a political consultant who advises filmmaker Steven Spielberg and executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. If Obama runs, he said, “some people will jump on board immediately, whether Hillary has made her decision or not.”

Others are skeptical of Obama’s capacity to withstand the media scrutiny of a presidential race. Donors may be “clamoring to write checks,” but “the truth is nobody knows who he really is,” said Rick Jacobs, a Democratic fundraiser who led Howard Dean’s presidential effort in California.

For many Democratic donors, multiple candidates hold appeal. Lear, for one, has pledged money to Clinton, Obama, Vilsack and John Edwards, the party’s 2004 nominee for vice president. The idea is to promote “a vigorous discussion of issues and policies,” Lear wrote on the Huffington Post blog.

Edwards, who has championed anti-poverty efforts in preparation for a 2008 run for president, has worked hard to build support among California labor unions, a big potential money source. But the huge financial support he received from fellow trial lawyers in his 2004 campaign for president is in doubt.

“I don’t think that John Edwards will have a total commitment from the trial lawyers this year,” said Joseph W. Cotchett, a top California trial lawyer and Edwards supporter in 2004. “He’s an extraordinary individual, one of us. But a lot of people are looking in different directions.”

If Clinton and Obama enter the race, California money is likely to be tougher for Edwards and other Democrats to get. Some of the lesser-known candidates, including Vilsack, are counting on making a good impression in the intimate settings of their donor meetings in the closing days of 2006.

“This is a very sophisticated audience,” said Roy Behr, Vilsack’s California-based media consultant. Donors know that the 13 months before nominating contests start are “an eternity in politics, and that early polls are completely meaningless at this point.”

“There will be plenty of money here for everybody,” Democratic strategist Bill Carrick said. “And the reality is front-runners are going to raise more money than people in the back of the pack, regardless of the circumstance.”

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com

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California dollars

Political money collected from California donors by potential White House contenders since the 1997-98 election cycle:

Democrats

John Kerry...$33,806,372

Hillary Rodham Clinton...$7,416,338

Al Gore...$5,203,201

John Edwards...$3,526,319

Wesley Clark...$2,524,371

Barack Obama...$1,444,621

Bill Richardson...$1,429,195

Joseph R. Biden Jr....$973,390

Dennis Kucinich...$919,982

Christopher Dodd...$890,331

Tom Vilsack...$269,300

Republicans

John McCain...$4,025,366

George Pataki...$1,694,816

Duncan Hunter...$1,534,912

Rudolph Giuliani...$943,544

Mitt Romney...$413,316

Sam Brownback...$343,979

Newt Gingrich...$306,895

Chuck Hagel...$215,006

Tommy Thompson...$11,350

Mike Huckabee...$7,850

Sources: Center for Responsive Politics; National Institute on Money in State Politics; New York City Campaign Finance Board.