September 3, 1997

The Talk in Washington: With Eyes on 2000, the Big Issue Is Money


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  • Coverage of the Political Fund-Raising Debate

    WASHINGTON -- Issues? Personalities? Messages? Forget about it. The early, early handicapping of the presidential race in 2000 is all about one thing: who can amass the most (in the parlance of strategists) "dough."

    While the hunt for money, or, more accurately, $1,000 checks, has long dominated early positioning for the White House, never before have so many potential candidates been so consumed so soon with money. This preoccupation has touched Democrats and Republicans alike, but is more prevalent among Republicans because that party's field is as wide (open) as a political smile.

    "We've already been contacted by seven races," said Stanley Huckaby, a Republican consultant here who is an authority on fund raising for presidential primaries.

    Huckaby said seven potential candidates for president, or their representatives, had quizzed him about when they should begin raising money or whether they should first establish political action committees. In the last presidential election, he said, he had not drawn such interest until at least two years before the election.

    The prevailing view is that for a politician to be considered legitimate, he or she must collect at least $20 million by the first of January 2000. With that yardstick in mind, campaign strategists have analyzed the fund-raising prowess of prospective candidates in remarkable detail.

    At a recent Republican Party convention in Cleveland, party luminaries tried to talk loftily about the issues facing the party. But in the evening, the operatives retired to the hotel bar to debate presidential politics from their perspective: who can raise how much, and how quickly. As an example, when strategists discuss Jack Kemp, the Republican vice-presidential nominee last year, they talk less about his message and more about whether he has the discipline to raise enough money.

    "Money is becoming the overarching theme of what distinguishes the men from the boys in terms of presidential timber," said Steven Merksamer, a lawyer and Republican consultant in Sacramento, Calif. "That's ultimately detrimental not only to our party, but to our country."

    Merksamer has heard all the chatter.

    "Dan Quayle, for example, is dismissed by a lot of the Washington consulting crowd because he's viewed as unable to raise Big Money," he said, "whereas George Bush Jr. is hot because he's viewed as able to raise Big Money. You hear that guys like John McCain are not viable because they are not able to raise money. And you hear Steve Forbes is viable because money is not an issue to him." (Forbes, of course, is a multimillionaire.)

    One prominent practitioner of all the talk of money spoke only on the condition of anonymity. But when asked about the Republican field, he responded by going into an assessment of who could raise how much by the caucuses in Iowa. (That's February 2000).

    "Alexander's going to have 15 mill by Iowa," the consultant said. "But Bush will have 20. I wouldn't be surprised if Bush holds his first dinner and breaks every record: two dinners in the same month in Houston and Dallas. I don't think Quayle has as much money."

    With the campaign finance hearings continuing on Capitol Hill this week, and focus on Vice President Al Gore, Democrats need no reminding that Gore will be skilled at raising money for 2000. Some say that Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, the minority leader, might mount a vigorous challenge, assuming he can collect enough money. And they say that one edge for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts is that he has the Forbes advantage: a personal fortune (in this case, his wife's).

    In fact, the focus in the capital on campaign finance reform has not dampened the hunt for money.

    "The experiences of the '96 election with soft money and kaffeeklatsches and the Lincoln Bedroom left the impression on candidates and players that money is now paramount," said David Magleby, a political scientist and expert on campaign finance at Brigham Young University. "The Clinton-Morris strategy of pre-emptive early spending is the current benchmark against which candidates are going to be measuring themselves and their opponents."

    When he started his presidential campaign last year, Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, declared at a glittering fund-raising dinner that "ready money" is "the most reliable friend you can have in American politics."

    For Gramm, ready money did not prove especially reliable; he suffered a devastating defeat in the primaries. Yet this time around, ready money is again the mantra.

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