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Free-agent donors choosing Obama

Times Staff Writer

Campaign donors who previously backed also-ran Democratic candidates have adopted Sen. Barack Obama as their second choice, preferring Obama by a ratio of nearly 3 to 1 over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and giving him twice as much money.

Obama has collected more than $2 million to Clinton’s $900,000 from donors who once backed former Sen. John Edwards and other Democrats who have dropped out, a Times analysis of Federal Election Commission records shows.

The money flowed in February and March from people like Kevin Jennings.

For the first time in his 44 years, Jennings has gotten involved in a national campaign. He volunteered for Edwards in South Carolina, and hosted him at his Manhattan apartment, raising more than $100,000. When Edwards quit the race, Jennings was devastated.

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“It felt like a family member had died,” Jennings said.

After a mourning period, Jennings, a former teacher and a founder of a group that tries to help schools protect gay and lesbian students from harassment, stepped back into the fray. Public attention focuses on which candidate attracts superdelegates and primary votes. But there also has been a far less public competition between Obama and Clinton for the moneyed backers of their former rivals.

People who raise money for Clinton and Obama tell of soliciting friends who had backed the other candidates. Some donors to Edwards and the others said they had received calls from backers of the remaining candidates. In many instances, however, the donors needed no prompting.

“This is an unbelievably important election,” Jennings said, who co-hosted an event that raised $170,000 for Obama.

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Obama’s success at attracting the donors of the also-ran Democrats underscores a phenomenon apparent throughout the Democratic primary: Many Democrats take an “Anybody but Clinton” view.

“She is the establishment candidate, and for a lot of these people she is worse than that,” San Jose State University political scientist Larry N. Gerston said. “They’re saying ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ By going with Obama, they are perpetuating the possibility that it is ABC -- anybody but Clinton.”

“I guess it is impolite to talk about it, but she has much more baggage than he does,” said Denver attorney Amy Robertson, 47, who had given $2,300 to Edwards and more recently donated $2,300 to Obama. “It was not a tough call.”

The Times focused on donors who gave to Obama or Clinton in February and March, after other candidates suspended their efforts. (April records won’t be available until later this month.) The contributions were made before Obama stumbled by making comments that critics said were elitist, and endured embarrassment brought about by the whirlwind speaking tour of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

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Such difficulties notwithstanding, those of Obama’s newfound backers interviewed by The Times said they remained steadfast. However, Clinton’s new backers said they were even more confident that they made the right choice by aligning themselves with the New York senator.

“The issue of race has come up, against [Obama’s] wishes,” said Fernando Albornoz, 57, a union member and an environmentalist from Austin, Texas. Albornoz had given $250 to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and had never been a fan of Clinton’s. But after seeing her campaign, Albornoz concluded “she was a real fighter,” and sent her $250.

They were the first donations he had ever given in a presidential contest.

Albornoz has grown more doubtful that Obama can win in November, in light of Wright’s inflammatory statements.

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“It is going to prove very expensive, in terms of political capital,” he said. “That’s the nature of American politics.”

The Times analysis shows that roughly 3,000 donors to the Democrats who quit the race have switched to Obama, and 1,100 have gone with Clinton. Obama has fared best among Richardson’s donors, collecting 73% of the money they gave in February and March. Clinton’s best showing was among donors to Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., though she collected only 40% of the money they gave in February and March, to Obama’s 60%.

Two of the former candidates, Richardson and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, have endorsed Obama. Edwards and Biden are neutral.

By far, the largest source of money for the two remaining candidates came from Edwards’ backers -- $1.2 million for Obama and $500,000 for Clinton. The analysis omits most donations of $200 or less, because candidates are not required to itemize small donations.

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James Cooney, 50, an attorney in Charlotte, N.C., counts himself as one of Edwards’ friends. But the Illinois senator was an easy second choice, Cooney said: “He has the capacity to transform the debate.”

Cooney said that Obama had the potential to win North Carolina in the November election but that he doubted Clinton would even try to do so. Cooney spoke on the day when Obama rebuked Wright, and said the controversy had not made him waver.

“I’ve sat in pews and heard my priest say things I could not disagree with more,” Cooney said. “I can understand having a pastor you disagree with.”

A single donation is one thing. But candidates are particularly interested in donors who can bundle contributions from friends and associates.

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Paul Bardacke, 64, is Richardson’s personal attorney and a former New Mexico attorney general. Bardacke said he came to his second choice easily, without a nudge from Richardson, and is organizing a fundraiser for Obama in mid-May in Santa Fe.

“The Clintons in my view don’t represent much of a change,” Bardacke said. “You get a sense that they feel entitled and they feel they are royalty. It is time to pass the torch.”

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dan.morain@latimes.com

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Times researcher Maloy Moore and data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.


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