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Playing Down Presidential Ambitions
From Its Name to Its Party Line, Gore's Leadership '98 PAC Is Mum on 2000

By Ruth Marcus and Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 10, 1998; Page A14

When Vice President Gore and a few hundred of his most loyal supporters gather in Nashville this weekend, Gore's staff wants you to know, none of the events will have anything to do with his presidential ambitions.

Not the afternoon of briefings on the 1998 campaigns by Gore's top political consultants. Not the speech on leadership and the future by author David Halberstam, a longtime Gore friend. Not the $500-a-head Saturday night dinner-dance at Opryland or the private brunch with Gore aboard a steamboat the following morning.

The events are for supporters of Gore's fledgling political action committee, Leadership '98, which has been raising money and, in the process, helping Gore solidify his national fund-raising network and win the favor of candidates who receive contributions from the Gore PAC.

All of this might come in handy in the event Gore chooses to run for president in 2000, but Leadership '98 spokeswoman Marla E. Romash, asked what the PAC had to do with Gore's presidential ambitions, was unequivocal: "Nothing," she said. "At the risk of sounding naive, this committee is about electing Democrats in 1998. Is it good for Al Gore in 2000 to have more Democrats in office in 1998? Absolutely. But this is about '98."

If that is the official line, not all the donors are exactly on message. Asked about his $5,000 contribution, New York businessman John Catsimatides said, "It was to help the vice president become president some day." Another giver called the PAC "the first step in a two-year-plus journey" and noted that donors to Gore's presidential campaign would be limited to $1,000 contributions, compared with $5,000 to the PAC. "If you want to try to be sure he's the nominee, this is the best way there is," this contributor said.

Having a political action committee has become standard operating procedure for a politician considering a presidential run. Would-be presidents since Ronald Reagan have used PACs as financial and political launching pads that allow them to raise and spend freely without having it count against the strict limits that kick in once they formally enter the presidential race.

For Gore, who is also stacking up chits with his fund-raising for Democratic Party committees and candidates, the PAC offers yet another such opportunity. "I believe everything he does politically to help Democrats in 1998 will inure to his benefit if he runs in the year 2000," said Gore chief of staff Ron Klain. One person helping raise money for the PAC was less oblique. "Everything in the back of someone's mind is about 2000," he said.

But with the lingering political fallout from Gore's attendance at a Buddhist temple fund-raiser and the controversy over his solicitation calls from the White House during the 1996 presidential campaign, Gore and his staff have found themselves balancing the desire to reap maximum political benefit from the PAC operation against the risk of calling unwanted attention to his ambitions.

As a result, the Gore PAC, established in February, is taking a particularly cautious and low-key approach. PAC director Nick Baldick canceled two lunches and declined to be interviewed for this story, as did Peter Knight, a longtime Gore adviser who is playing a major role in the PAC's fund-raising. The Nashville weekend and a dinner Tuesday at New York's Tavern on the Green restaurant for $5,000 donors are the only major events scheduled.

"That makes it tougher," said Mitchell Berger, a Floridian who said he has already raised tens of thousands for the PAC. "People like to have an opportunity to see the vice president."

Gore is not making fund-raising calls himself, but he and Tipper Gore have been having a series of intimate dinners with donors and prospects at hotels and private homes. The dinners, which typically include about 10 couples, "are the '98 version of the '96 coffees," said one person who has attended both.

While Romash said the PAC is focused on getting Democrats elected in '98, its largest contribution, out of $10,000 donated so far, went to the primary campaign of South Dakota congressional candidate Jeff Moser, who is given little chance of unseating Rep. John Thune (R). The $5,000 contribution was directed to Moser as a favor to Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), according to a congressional source.

Romash said the PAC had raised $1.3 million as of the end of June and is expected to reach $4 million. Of that amount, it will make about $1 million in contributions to candidates and will disband by the end of the year. No money will be transferred to a Gore presidential campaign committee.

In contrast, then-Vice President George Bush's PAC, Fund for America's Future, raised $11.2 million from 1985 to 1988 but gave just $844,000 to candidates, devoting the rest of the money to hiring political organizers in Iowa and New Hampshire, developing direct-mail fund-raising programs, hiring a 50-person national staff and conducting polls.

Ronald Kaufman, who served as the Bush PAC's executive director, said of Gore's situation, "They've created a negative climate for themselves in the way they've raised money in the past. By virtue of their own mistakes they have to be minimalist in what they do."

Klain said Gore "could raise a heck of a lot more money than we are willing to raise at the PAC. The budget was based on what we thought was an appropriate-sized effort on top of everything else he is doing to help candidates in 1998."

But one PAC donor said the PAC is "going to have a tough time" getting to its $4 million goal in the time available, and attributed the lag to "burnout" from Democratic supporters and the PAC's "overly cautious" approach after the 1996 fund-raising debacles.

And some of Gore's potential rivals snipe that Gore should be doing even more for the party. People are "frustrated by the amount of time and attention being put into a potential race in 2000 when we have four critical months left in this election," said one Democrat supporting a potential Gore rival.

The Nashville event will be "something of a family affair," as Gore's former chief of staff, Roy M. Neel, put it, attended by longtime Gore supporters, many of whom have pledged to raise significant sums.

The speakers at a Saturday briefing will include Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, an honorary co-chair of the PAC; Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Martin Frost (Tex.); pollster Doug Schoen; media consultant Robert Squier, and Romash. Also expected to be in attendance are Klain and Michael Whouley, a Boston-based strategist helping Gore build a national field team.

Connecticut lawyer Peter Kelly, one of the PAC "team leaders" who will be in Nashville this weekend, said he has been given a $200,000 goal for his home state and is helping raise more in several other states. "That will not be a problem," he said. "A lot of people want to participate."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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