From the San Joaquin Valley to Wall Street, John McCain has been headlining a series of high-dollar Republican fundraisers, including one at a billionaire's gated home here that asked couples to make donations of $86,200.
The events combine fundraisers for McCain's presidential campaign with those for the national and state GOP. They will help ensure that the longtime advocate for campaign finance restrictions will have the money to compete in the presidential election, even as some say the events call into question his credentials as a reformer.
McCain lags both Democrats in the race for cash. Front-runner Barack Obama seemingly prints money, raising three times more than McCain. He and Hillary Rodham Clinton have raised $480 million between them -- five times as much as McCain's $90.5 million.
But McCain is not without a financial savior: the Republican National Committee.
The Arizona senator, as the presumed nominee, now controls it. And, while McCain can raise only $2,300 per donor for the November election, the national party can raise $28,500 per donor -- a limit set by the campaign finance reform that McCain championed. Donors can also give up to $10,000 to the California party's federal political action committee and an additional $2,300 to a separate compliance account, used to hire lawyers and accountants to make sure the candidate is complying with federal law.
By the end of April, McCain and the Republican National Committee had $62 million in the bank-- $10 million more than Obama and the Democratic National Committee.
"Our fundraising is increasing," McCain said in Stockton, where he held his third fundraiser in a 24-hour period last week at the home of developer Alex Spanos, owner of the San Diego Chargers.
For a single $2,300 donation to McCain, donors received a lapel pin. But the invitation made clear McCain wanted couples to arrive with checks for as much as $86,200. At other fundraisers, couples have been encouraged to give $140,000 or more.
McCain returns to Los Angeles this week for a fundraiser expected to raise more than $5 million for his campaign and the Republican Party. It will be at the home of RNC finance committee chairman Elliott Broidy, a venture capitalist who invests heavily in Israel. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nancy Reagan are expected to attend.
Former Univison Chairman A. Jerrold Perenchio, MGM Chairman Harry Sloan and eight others promised to raise $250,000 each. According to the invitation, they will "receive a Private Greet with Senator McCain, a Private Reception with Photo Opportunity and Premier Seating at Dinner." Eleven others pledged to raise $125,000 each, while 16 others promised to raise between $43,100 and $86,200.
"All the events are in the seven-figure range," said a member of McCain's fundraising committee, who was not authorized to speak for the campaign and therefore asked for anonymity. Pointing to the cost of the fall campaign, the person said: "The only way you will get there is to have people write these larger checks."
To attract high-rollers to Spanos' estate, Schwarzenegger was a featured guest, as was former Gov. Pete Wilson. Florida real estate entrepreneur Mel Sembler, former ambassador to Italy and a longtime friend of Spanos, was one of 13 co-chairs, a designation indicating that each had raised $25,000 minimum.
"The RNC's job, first and foremost, above all else, is to elect a president," Sembler said. "Everything else is secondary. Nothing is more important. Nothing else takes precedence."
Sembler, a former RNC finance chairman, and his family have given more than $1 million in the last decade to Republican candidates and causes, and at least $20,700 to McCain this year.
As McCain has solidified his position as the presumptive nominee, major GOP donors are giving the maximum to the RNC and to McCain.
Daniel F. Akerson, managing director of buyout giant Carlyle Group, gave $28,500 to the RNC last month; his wife, Karin Akerson, gave $2,300 to McCain. Chevron Chairman David O'Reilly also gave $28,500 to the party, Federal Election Commission records show.
Hedge fund mogul Paul E. Singer had been onetime front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani's major Wall Street fundraiser, generating at least $480,000 for Giuliani.
After Giuliani dropped out in early February, Singer signed on with McCain. He gave $28,500 to the RNC on April 25, and $2,300 to McCain on April 30. He and partners at his Elliott Associates and their families gave $400,000 to the RNC and $14,800 to McCain in March and April, campaign finance reports show.
The Michigan-based DeVos family, which controls Alticor, the parent of Amway, are major patrons to conservative causes and charities. They backed Mitt Romney's presidential campaign and, since he left the race, the DeVos family has donated at least $57,000 to McCain and $50,000 to the RNC.
"We're unified and that's why we have had the results," said RNC Chairman Mike Duncan.
Since the start of 2007, the Republican National Committee has outraised its Democratic counterpart by two to one, $143 million to $77 million.
The Democratic Party has been hamstrung in part by the primary fight between Obama and Clinton. Unlike McCain, who has installed some top advisors at the RNC, Democrats have not yet embarked on major joint fundraising efforts with the party, though former Vice President Al Gore has begun helping raise party money.
Obama has been raising money at a pace of more than $1 million a day. Increasingly, he relies on the Internet to tap large numbers of small-dollar donors.
According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute in Washington, about 63% of McCain's money comes in checks of $1,000 or more; about 34% of Obama's does. Obama has tapped 1.5 million donors. If he wins the nomination, he can return to these small-dollar donors to ask for more money.
"McCain doesn't have the kind of low-donor fundraising base that can be self-sustaining," said Michael J. Malbin, the institute's executive director.
McCain probably will accept federal tax money to help run his general-election campaign. The federal check of $84 million would equate to about $1 million a day for the fall campaign -- plus whatever the party spends on his behalf.
If McCain relies too much on the party's money, though, he can expect Democrats to use that to undermine his reputation as a maverick. As California Democratic consultant Garry South put it: He's "dining with fat cats at $86,000 a gulp."
Times researcher Maloy Moore and data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.