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February 15, 1998

Attack by GOP Over Fund-Raising Practices Doesn't Slow Gore


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    By RICHARD L. BERKE

    WASHINGTON -- In a scathing, partisan assessment of Al Gore's fund-raising practices, Senate Republicans investigating campaign-finance abuses concluded in a draft report last week that the vice president took part in a coordinated drive before the 1996 presidential election "to violate the letter and spirit of existing federal campaign laws."

    Yet if Republicans intend to discourage Gore from his quest for contributions in this midterm election year, they have failed miserably. If anything, his advisers said, Gore has stepped up his pace of helping Democrats raise money.

    Gore is creating his own political action committee that will help finance his travel to political events around the United States, and allow him to contribute to campaigns directly.

    On Saturday night, for example, he is the main attraction at a swordfish dinner in Miami Beach at an annual retreat of the Democratic Business Council, an exclusive club of donors who have contributed at least $10,000 apiece.

    Gore's willingness, even enthusiasm, for raising money demonstrates that despite a climate in which campaign-finance practices are drawing far more scrutiny and harsh publicity, politicians are not about to jeopardize their campaigns financially.

    Ridiculing the scalding conclusions of the Senate Republicans' report, Ronald Klain, Gore's chief of staff, said: "Untrue, unfair political charges leveled at him are not going to keep him from doing what he can to help the Democratic Party. I think the public will grow sick of it."

    For Gore, the incentive is twofold: One of his most important assignments as vice president is to raise money for the Democratic National Committee and other arms of the party. But in the process, Gore helps himself by mingling with donors whose generosity might be critical when he begins, possibly later this year, to raise money for his own run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000.

    The only concession to the fund-raising furor that enveloped him last year, aides said, is that Gore has stopped hitting up donors over the telephone.

    The White House sex scandal has made him even more timid about making direct appeals for money, particularly since advisers said Gore did not want to appear to be in any way angling for the president's job. In fact, that scandal has led Gore to put off the official start-up date for his political action committee.

    Still, Gore's advisers cautioned that his respite from seeking donations by telephone may be only temporary. (Gore was essentially cleared in December by Attorney General Janet Reno of accusations that he improperly made dozens of telephone solicitations from the White House.)

    In an interview several weeks ago, Gore appeared defensive and uncomfortable when asked whether the furor over his fund raising in 1996 would hinder his own future prospecting for money. While Gore sidestepped the question, and responded in the present tense, he made clear that he would press ahead on the fund-raising circuit.

    "Both the president and I have made a commitment to help the DNC to raise money," he said. "And I have not noticed any difficulty accomplishing that task."

    GOING ON DESPITE CAMPAIGN STORM

    Week after week, month after month, Gore travels the country appearing at private homes and hotel ballrooms as he raises money for Democratic candidates. That helps explain why even at this early stage Gore is widely considered to be the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

    Consider, for example, the vice president's visit one night late last year to a dinner ($5,000 per couple) at the sprawling white brick home in Dallas of Robert Utley, a multimillionaire banker.

    Gore's mission: to hobnob and pose for photographs with the wealthiest Democrats in Texas. Such dinners are so locked into Gore's schedule (sometimes two or three times a week) that his actual appearances are down to a science, from the precise position where he stands to the American-flag backdrop.

    It is a scene that Gore rarely allows reporters to witness: There he was, positioned on the edge of a Persian rug in one of Utley's elegant sitting rooms, a velvet rope in front of him to make sure the guests flowed in the most efficient manner possible.

    While waiting to greet the vice president, guests filled out cards with their names and addresses. An aide read the cards and discreetly alerted Gore to the identity of his next guest. Another aide put the guest's purse or cane on a table so it was not in the photograph. These people were not giving money to Gore, but to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which helps elect Democrats to the House.

    This event was important because history shows that more than anything, candidates with the most money in the bank win their party's nomination. And because of Gore's incumbency advantage -- and ability to meet donors with events like the one in Texas -- his advisers say he should not have a hard time collecting the roughly $35 million that candidates who accept federal money can spend in the primaries.

    Gore is not the only one who has been sensitive in the wake of the campaign-finance storm; donors are more hesitant as well. A prime example is Gore's most dependable fund-raiser over the years, Peter Knight, whose role may be diminished because he is the subject of multiple inquiries into his activities in 1996.

    This is familiar territory for Gore. When he ran for president in 1988, Gore was attacked as a pawn of fat cats who united behind his campaign. Many of those same donors, like Knight and Nathan Landow, have since found themselves at the center of fresh questions about whether they have traded on their connection to the vice president.

    Accusations aside, Gore is still positioned to collect more than any of his opponents -- and faster. Donors gravitate to people who are perceived as front-runners, and Gore's influential policy role makes him all the more attractive.

    "There's a reciprocal deal here," said Lynn Cutler, a White House deputy director of intergovernmental affairs and former vice chairman of the Democratic Party, when asked why Gore attends so many fund-raisers. "He needs to do it as a party leader. But he's helping himself."

    FUND-RAISING SKILL COMES AT A COST

    Even Clinton, the master politician, does not surpass his vice president in the unpleasant task of asking for money. Gore was far more prolific than Clinton in making phone solicitations from the White House in the 1996 campaign.

    But Gore's tenaciousness came at a cost: He found himself spending much of last year defending his solicitations from the White House as well as his appearance at a Buddhist temple in California, where contributions for the Democratic National Committee were improperly funneled through straw donors who were worshippers at the temple.

    At a news conference last March, Gore tried to explain the phone calls by saying, awkwardly and antiseptically, that there was "no controlling legal authority" to prohibit the practice. Afterward, he and the president declared themselves triumphant. "He said, 'I thought you did well,"' Gore recalled in an interview. "And I thought I did, too."

    But in an interview in December, Clinton remembered a different moment -- their conversation after the scathing post-mortems in the press. "I didn't have to say anything," Clinton, laughing, said of their talk. "He said, 'Boy, I can sure turn a phrase, can't I?"'

    The president recalled his counsel to Gore. "We just talked about it," he said. "We laughed about it and decided what to do and go on. I told him: 'Look, the main thing is anybody who looks at the evidence will know that you thought you were doing the right thing, and eventually that will come out. And so just go to work, answer the questions and keep in mind who we're working for up here, and what they want us to do.' That was my advice."

    Hardly inhibited, Gore took the advice and has not looked back. Given his stature as vice president, Gore is probably the only Democrat who can legitimately count on collecting millions of dollars for his political action committee -- and have the same donors later contribute to his campaign.

    His stiffest potential competitor in raising money for a presidential bid -- at least for now -- is Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, the House Democratic leader, who already has his own political action committee. Like Gore, Gephardt travels on the circuit to raise money for Democrats.

    As a foundation, Gore can turn to networks that have been dependable givers for years: friends from Tennessee, which he represented in the House and Senate for 16 years, lobbyists in Washington, friends from Harvard, and environmentalists.

    The vice president has little room to maneuver: He wants to amass as much as possible in 1999 to scare off potential rivals, while also not being too overt and thus reigniting attacks that he is just another hat-in-hand politician.

    In broadening his network, Gore has assiduously sought to co-opt the Clinton fund-raising machine. Tony Podesta, a Democratic strategist who sometimes advises Gore, remembered that after the 1996 election, Clinton held a gala event in Washington to thank his benefactors.

    "The vice president spent more time at the event than the president did," he said. "His wooing of those people has been masterful." The night before, Gore held a small dinner at his residence for what Podesta called "the creme de la creme" of contributors.

    Unlike other Gore loyalists, Roy Neel, Gore's former chief of staff and a close confidant, did not try to sugarcoat the campaign-finance questions swirling about the vice president last year. "Dealing with this campaign-finance stuff, it's just a terrible burden," he said. "It weighs you down."

    Another close adviser to Gore, speaking on the condition of anonymity, was far more unnerved by the campaign-finance accusations against the vice president. "It definitely blew the wind out of him," he said. "What I can't say is how many people didn't pick up the phone who would have said, 'I want to be with him."'

    ACCESS TO WEALTH AND TO POWER

    Gore's fund-raising prowess was on display that brisk Monday night in Dallas. It did not seem to matter that he was in the throes of the campaign-finance inquiry as he unabashedly shook every gold-festooned hand, kissed the wives and asked after the children. Few of the vice president's potential rivals would have such access to so many wealthy Democrats.

    "Mr. Speaker!" Gore called out excitedly when he spotted Jim Wright, who resigned as House speaker in 1989 amid inquiries into his financial practices. After the two chatted briefly, Gore said, "We'll be in touch with you on that," and handed Wright's card to an aide.

    "Hey," another donor blurted to Gore, "you're doing a good job but you need to be more visible." The vice president smiled and nodded.

    Fresh from greeting Gore, another guest, Mayor Ron Kirk of Dallas, bounded up to the the host, Utley, with the greeting "Mr. Moneybags!"

    After Gore shook hands with the very last contributor -- the process lasted about an hour -- he was ushered into a dining room and seated at the head table with the wealthiest of the wealthy.

    "Virtually every Democrat in Dallas who can write a significant check is in this room tonight," Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, declared at the dinner.

    Introducing Gore, he said the event "could not have happened without a very generous use of his time."

    The vice president was greeted with a standing ovation. He then devoted at least 15 minutes to singling out politicians and wealthy Democrats in the room for praise, and delivered a feisty speech touting the accomplishments of the Clinton administration.

    The vice president's private briefing papers let him know how vital his Texas dinner companions could be for his campaign: Utley, the host ("a big supporter of VP Gore"); Robert Crandall, chief executive officer of American Airlines; Dain Hancock, president of Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems; Fred Baron, a Dallas lawyer (a "big supporter of Democratic causes"); Robert Green, an investor from Amarillo ("a big supporter of Democratic House members such as Nita Lowey"), and Debbie Branson, a Dallas lawyer ("a big supporter of the president and VP; a DNC trustee; active in DNC Women's Leadership Forum").

    Though Wright seemed to enjoy the event thoroughly, he later spoke disparagingly of what Gore must endure to construct his fund-raising machine.

    "It's demeaning, the time you have to spend on the telephone begging fat cats for money," he said. Yet, Wright conceded, "It appeals to almost anyone's vanity to get a signed picture of the president and vice president of the United States. It has to cement that person's loyalty to you."




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