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In ‘money primary,’ it’s survival of the richest

Times Staff Writer

The guests -- who arrived in limousines, Mercedes-Benzes and other luxury cars -- were in place before Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton greeted her host with a hug and proceeded behind the mansion doors.

It was the first of four fundraising stops over the weekend in Texas that the New York Democrat had planned in a 24-hour period ending Saturday night, one of many also being played out across the country by her Republican and Democratic rivals.

Long before the first votes are cast in Iowa and New Hampshire, presidential candidates are immersed in their own version of March Madness -- a dizzying pace of fundraisers intended to display their financial strength by the end of the month, when they must disclose for the first time how much money they have amassed.

The stakes in this “money primary” are every bit as high as those in the real primaries early next year. Candidates know that big numbers will attract more money and bolster their credibility; a lackluster showing could dash their hopes.

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“Until we have a primary, fundraising is going to be a form of primary,” said former California Republican Party Chairman Michael Schroeder, who is directing Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in the state.

In Iowa and New Hampshire, voters expect candidates to meet them face-to-face. In the money primary, face time comes with a price -- commonly $2,300 per ticket.

In Austin on Friday night, about 175 people, including Hollywood producer and real estate heir Stephen Bing, descended on the home of Roy Spence.

Spence has known Clinton and her husband, the former president, since George S. McGovern’s run for the White House in 1972. As the Clintons pursued politics, Spence built his advertising agency, coining such phrases as the anti-littering “Don’t mess with Texas” and one used four years ago by then-Sen. John Edwards, one of Clinton’s current rivals: “Hope is on the way.”

Chatting on his front lawn shortly before his featured guest arrived, Spence pledged to help Clinton “in any way I can.” Then he came up with a line that had possibilities: “She’ll start from strength, not from scratch.” He paused. “That’s a good line.”

An e-mail from Clinton’s campaign last week reflected the urgency of the fundraising push. Calling for a big turnout for three events planned March 25 in the Bay Area, the missive said the March 31 deadline was “the first big test for all of the presidential candidates.... We need your help to ensure that Hillary has a strong and impressive showing.”

It’s a contest that takes place largely out of public view. Clinton took time to visit a community center and the Wesley AME Church during her fundraising foray to Houston on Saturday. But some candidates slip in and out of town without making a single public appearance, knowing the less said about the money that fuels their campaigns, the better.

Romney -- the former Massachusetts governor whose account probably will be among the largest when the numbers become public in April -- gave no notice when he stopped in Sacramento and the Bay Area last week to raise money. The events most often take place in hotels, homes and country clubs where the public and media are typically excluded.

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“The irony,” said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime advocate of stricter regulation of campaign financing, “is that for those who raise large sums, they are happy to report the total amount they raise. But some candidates don’t want media stories about fundraising events. It is something you have to do, but it is not exactly something you want to present to the public.”

Romney is holding fundraisers on 21 days in March. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani will have held 35 fundraisers by the end of the month, according to their campaigns. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will have an Austin fundraiser Monday.

“The number of fundraising events being done is truly extraordinary,” said Anthony Corrado, political scientist at Colby College in Maine and an expert on presidential campaign finances.

Corrado predicts top-tier candidates will have amassed $20 million to $30 million apiece, maybe more, by March 31. Clinton, he and others believe, could be atop the pack. By the same reporting deadline in 2003, all the presidential candidates combined had raised $29.56 million.

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Candidates typically spend more than half of their time raising money, Corrado said. But the effort is coming sooner and is more intense this year because of the raft of early primaries, notably California’s on Feb. 5.

Romney already has started airing television ads in New Hampshire. With increasing numbers of voters casting ballots by mail, television spots could start airing before Christmas in some states that will be holding February primaries. The television ad price tag can easily hit $5 million a week in California.

“Obviously, it’s quite intense,” said Kate Bedingfield, spokeswoman for Edwards. “He is pedal to the metal.”

Some candidates publicly downplay the significance, even as they rush to raise money. “It’s just one of those indicators,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, preparing to enter the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton for a lunch-hour fundraiser, one of seven he held during his California swing last week.

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Indeed, if money were all that mattered, many also-rans would have far more prominent places in the history books.

Former Texas Gov. John Connally raised more than $10 million and won a single delegate in 1980. Former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm raised $20 million and dropped out before New Hampshire in 1996.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean raised $30 million between July and December 2003, and stalled after the 2004 Iowa caucus.

But while some big-money candidates stumble, no fundraising laggard has become a major party nominee.

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The high price of presidential campaigns is taking a toll. Some candidates have already dropped out, citing a lack of money. With the apparent demise of the federal public financing system for presidential campaigns, others could follow once the first-quarter numbers are tallied.

But the focus on fundraising can be touchy, particularly for candidates who run as populists and reformers. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) will have held about two dozen events in March, including one in San Francisco on Saturday; at one on March 9 he tapped Wall Street donors.

A few days earlier, Obama e-mailed a pitch to small donors, declaring he wasn’t taking money from “Washington lobbyists and political action committees.”

“It may sound strange for a presidential candidate to launch a fundraising drive that isn’t about dollars,” the e-mail said, urging small donors to enlist others. “But our democracy shouldn’t be about money, and it’s time our campaigns weren’t either.”

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dan.morain@latimes.com


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