Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 25, 1998; Page A01
Boston, New York, Vegas, L.A. Salmon, sea bass, quiche, torte. The big cities and elegant menus whiz by in a blur, but one constant shines like a beacon in the schedule of Vice President Gore: the money.
As Gore turns his attention to the next presidential campaign his own he is precariously balanced between the imperative to raise megabucks and the new reality that every check and every event poses the potential for a public relations fiasco.
In the wake of the fund-raising controversies over the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection effort, the matter of how and where politicians get the money they need to run is under a microscope as never before.
For Gore, the situation is particularly acute. As the Democratic heir apparent, he would be subject to increased attention under normal circumstances. But his zealous fund-raising for the 1996 campaign, including making fund-raising calls from the White House, a disastrous decision to appear at a Buddhist temple and his ties to indicted activist Maria Hsia, guarantees that Gore's money operation will be even more intensely scrutinized.
The contrast was drawn in stark relief recently.
On Wednesday, March 11, Republican Lamar Alexander, who is running for president, played host to a dinner in Nashville that raised $3.5 million for his political action committee. He did it in relative obscurity. Three days later, Gore attended a fund-raiser in Boston under the watchful eye of 10 news outlets.
After a public life so squeaky clean it sometimes bordered on bland, Gore may find that his role as "solicitor in chief" during the last campaign is the one controversy that could haunt him.
The report issued last month by the GOP majority of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which investigated allegations of fund-raising abuses during the 1996 presidential campaign, asserted that the Clinton White House including the vice president conducted a well-coordinated and highly successful effort "to violate the letter and the spirit of federal campaign laws." More specifically, the report criticized Gore for his lack of candor in insisting that he did not know the Buddhist temple event was a fund-raiser.
Gore aides dismissed the report as a partisan attack, but Republicans are counting on long-term political fallout for the vice president.
"He himself is being very cautious," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), who collected $250,000 for her reelection campaign at a fund-raising lunch in Orange County with Gore last Friday. "His team has been very strict on the protocol of the fund-raiser. They're cautious and rightly so."
Yet no one is under greater pressure to generate big bucks than the vice president. Raising money is the traditional job of the No. 2 man, and with his party deeply in debt and struggling to regain congressional and gubernatorial seats, the demands on Gore are especially great this year.
More important for Gore, his fund-raising for Democratic causes is intended to cultivate and cement a wide network of donors he hopes will contribute to his newly formed political action committee and eventually fuel a presidential bid in 2000. While the money raised by Gore's PAC will be limited for use in 1998 and will not be transferred to a presidential campaign committee, the PAC offers Gore's political team the opportunity to revive his personal fund-raising organization and begin to build up a list of donors for 2000. Experts predict that presidential candidates will need to raise at least $20 million by the beginning of the election year.
When the fund-raising controversy erupted last year, "a lot of people around [Gore] got real nervous," said Peter Kelly, a top Democratic fund-raiser and Gore ally. But just as he did in mid-1988 when he doggedly retired a $1.6 million debt from his failed presidential campaign, Kelly said, Gore has set his mind to the task at hand.
"He's in a damn-the-torpedoes state of mind now," said Kelly, who visited with Gore on March 16, when the vice president helped raised $250,000 for the gubernatorial campaign of Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly (Conn.). "He's just got to do it. That's the reality. He's shed whatever reticence or reluctance he had."
So sprinkled in between the anti-tobacco forums and conference calls with mayors, Gore has been aggressively courting donors. In the past week alone, from March 14 to 21, he attended seven money-raising events and helped generate more than $2 million for Democratic candidates and the party. During just 24 hours over the weekend, he raised $600,000 for the Democratic National Committee, boasted National Chairman Steven Grossman.
"He's very much in demand," Grossman said during a reception in Boston. "It's very hard for us to satisfy the number of places that would like him to come."
No matter how much in demand he is as a fund-raiser, Gore's aides acknowledge he is sensitive critics would say overly sensitive to the criticism about his role in fund-raising.
Last month, the Federal Election Commission decided not to fine Miami businessman Howard Glicken for fund-raising violations, citing in part his close connections to Gore. The vice president's lawyer fired off an angry response saying he was "shocked at the gratuitous reference" to Gore and urged the FEC to strike any mention of Gore in its file on Glicken.
To prevent the type of money scandals that plagued them last year, both Gore and the DNC have instituted new procedures for screening donors. A new compliance team checks the backgrounds of major contributors as well as anyone photographed with or seated near either of the Clintons or Gores, according to committee general counsel Joseph Sandler.
"Everyone involved in fund-raising learned some valuable lessons as a result of the 1996 campaign," said Ron Klain, Gore's chief of staff. "But the problems we had in 1996 are not going to make him do less than what he can do to be helpful for candidates."
Marla Romash, a spokeswoman for Gore's new PAC, said the PAC intends to raise $4 million for candidates this year and will use the same screening procedures.
The Republican National Committee does not routinely check the backgrounds of large donors but has stepped up procedures for weeding out foreign contributions, said spokesman Mike Collins.
For Gore, each fund-raiser is a tightly choreographed affair, down to the grip-and-grin photo sessions with more generous donors and to the map he carries showing where to stand, walk and sit. Before each fund-raiser, Gore receives a two-sentence description of the main contributors and afterward he often meets privately with key constituents or top givers.
"I remember him coming to a Florida meeting and my thinking, 'Where's the vice president?'‚" said Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, who is general chairman of the DNC. "He was up in his room meeting with people. He uses his time very efficiently."
This is when Gore gets a chance to collect new names for his Rolodex and catch up with old friends.
"We'll shake hands, he'll ask for my card and then he will feel comfortable calling me up," said Carl Feen, as he waited on March 16 to join a private reception with Gore in Connecticut. "He knows I have the ability to raise a significant amount of money."
There is a hierarchy to modern-day fund-raising, and Gore is adept at adapting to the circumstances.
When he stormed into a crowd of 400 Massachusetts activists who had paid $150 for a carved turkey buffet March 14, Gore gave his "tub thumper," a rousing partisan speech in which the vice president rises up on his toes and growls into the microphone: "Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and organize."
Later in the evening, seated at a table with elegant burgundy linens and black and gold china, Gore dined on grilled filet of salmon with apricot macadamia chutney with 50 people who had contributed at least $10,000 per couple. As guests such as actress Liv Ullmann finished off the meal with a ganache torte, Gore spoke of the virtues of investment capital and the vice of "hyper-individualism that discounts the importance of community."
At all these events, it is clear that Gore is collecting political chits.
In Boston, for example, Service Employees International Union leader Ed Malloy said Gore's assistance in raising $100,000 for the state party would help "mend some fences" with labor leaders who have thus far viewed House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) as more sympathetic to union issues.
In Connecticut, Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy made clear to 500 guests the significance of Gore's appearance, telling the vice president: "We most appreciate that you would come to our city and to our state and help us raise money for Barbara Kennelly."
And the carefully scripted Gore offered a rare glimpse into the significance for him. After his remarks recognizing every elected official in the huge ballroom, Gore mentioned two other men for thanks. They were fund-raisers.
Staff writer Ruth Marcus contributed to this report.
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