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Who the Corporate Bosses Are Backing

With the first primaries and caucuses of the 2000 Presidential campaign less than three months away, candidate fund-raising is getting frenzied. Already, GOP front-runner George W. Bush has pulled in a record $60 million, while Vice-President Al Gore has raised $27 million. BUSINESS WEEK set out to analyze where the smart corporate money is going and why. To do so, we compiled a list of the top 1,000 companies by market cap. Correspondent Richard S. Dunham then worked with Campaign for America, a nonpartisan watchdog group, to match the contributions of company CEOs (limited to $1,000) with the Federal Election Commission's donor lists for the first nine months of 1999. The results are sometimes surprising.

Big Business has a resounding first choice for President in 2000: Texas Governor George W. Bush. Of the 389 top chief executives who have donated money to a Presidential candidate, 292--or 75%--sent a check to Bush. That's more than 3 times the tally of the runner-up, Democrat Bill Bradley; nearly 7 times the support for Vice-President Al Gore; and more than 10 times the roster of second-place Republican, Senator John McCain of Arizona. Bush backers are also more dedicated: 77% of his CEO supporters gave exclusively to him, while nearly half of those donating to Bradley or Gore shared their wealth with another hopeful.

What attracts CEOs to Bush? Some business leaders say they relate to his private-sector past as an oil-field entrepreneur and Major League Baseball owner. Some have longtime loyalties to his family. Others see ''W'' and see a winner who has the best chance of returning the GOP to the White House after eight years in the wilderness. ''I've admired how he's handled the governorship, I respect his judgment, and I know he comes from a very fine family,'' says Thomas F. Frist Jr., CEO of Columbia/HCA Healthcare. Bush's emphasis on education and inclusion play well in the boardroom. ''He is seen as a leader of tremendous vision as well as compassion,'' says Staples CEO Thomas G. Stemberg, who has volunteered to raise $100,000 for Bush.

Bush has a breadth of support that is breathtaking, with strong backing in economic sectors more readily identified with his rivals. Among the largest high-tech company CEOs, he trounces Gore, 41 to 7, and he leads McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, among top telecom chief executives, 10 to 6.

While Bradley is trying to appeal to the liberal Democratic base by tacking left, he's also making surprising inroads among historically Republican and conservative CEOs. Bradley received contributions from 94 CEOs--trouncing Democratic foe Gore, who notched just 44.

Bradley's appeal transcends ideology and partisanship. Says Bradley finance director Rick Wright, a former Princeton basketball teammate: CEOs ''may disagree with him on one or two things, but they like the way he makes decisions.'' Bradley's business backers say he's thoughtful, deliberative, and open-minded, much like an effective corporate executive. ''He's a very serious man with a very serious purpose,'' says Johnson & Johnson CEO Ralph S. Larsen, who has donated to Bradley and Bush.

In working the business community, Bradley has capitalized on his championship days with the New York Knicks. And Princeton folk hero Bradley has astutely tapped alumni networks far more effectively than Yalie Bush or Harvard man Gore. The former New Jersey senator's backing is clustered in finance, real estate, entertainment, and his home-state pharmaceutical industry. He even tops Gore in techland.

What's more, Bradley's support for overhauling the campaign-finance system wins plaudits from CEOs such as Warren E. Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and John H. Bryan of Sara Lee Corp. Indeed, a group of CEOs, including Howard Schultz of Starbucks, crossed party lines to provide financial backing for the two mavericks, Democrat Bradley and Republican McCain.

Despite Al Gore's intensive efforts to change his image in boardrooms, and despite the booming economy, many business leaders view the Veep as a traditional Democrat with anticorporate environmental leanings. They see him as too willing to mollify trial lawyers and organized labor. Only 22 top CEOs have donated exclusively to Gore. ''This campaign is going directly to the people and the grassroots,'' says Gore spokesman Chris Lehane, who adds that the Veep wears the absence of CEO support as a badge of honor.

Gore is even having trouble among CEOs who contributed to the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996. Just 10 who donated to the President's reelection effort have anted up for Gore. An equal number have sent checks to Bush, while 8 back Bradley. Another 10 have remained on the sidelines. ''The CEOs may be suffering from the same kind of Clinton fatigue as everyone else,'' says Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker. ''They simply think it's time for a change, but one that is not destabilizing and unsettling. They feel they can't lose with either [Bradley or Bush].''

The Veep's problems extend to his beloved high-tech community, where just 7 of 52 CEO donors have written him checks. He lags far behind Bush and narrowly behind Bradley. Still, there are corporate bright spots for Gore. Among Hollywood CEOs, he and Bradley are neck-and-neck, and Gore boasts VIP contributors such as Paul A. Allaire of Xerox Corp. and Sumner M. Redstone of Viacom Inc.

One CEO says Gore's problem in the boardroom reflects his failure to connect with voters. ''Among his many problems is a problem with business,'' says Stemberg of Staples Inc. ''But he has a bigger problem with the American people.''

The Arizona senator's underdog campaign has benefited from financial assistance from CEOs whose businesses he oversees as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. At least 21 of McCain's 26 CEO givers run corporations that stand to benefit--or suffer--under McCain's gavel.

Are the execs donating to curry favor with McCain, who will remain committee chair if he fails to win the Presidency? Not so, say both CEOs and McCain. The senator's aides say the candidate has not targeted businesses that fall under the committee's jurisdiction but is receiving contributions from friends who know and respect him. Indeed, Bush has received far more support from CEOs regulated by McCain's committee.

While Bush has the highest loyalty rate among executive donors, McCain has the lowest. Only 27% of McCain's contributors have donated exclusively to his campaign--far below the levels of even Bradley (53%) and Gore (50%).

Eastman Kodak Chief Executive George M. Fisher has donated to George Bush. And Bill Bradley. And Al Gore. And Elizabeth Dole. And he's not the only one. The BUSINESS WEEK analysis shows that 77 of the 389 business execs hedged their bets in the 2000 race by donating to multiple candidates. There were 52 ''switch-hitters'' who picked contenders in both parties. Ten gave to three or more candidates. America Online CEO Stephen M. Case says he gave to both Bush and McCain because ''I like and respect both of them.''

The most common multiple donations went to ''safe'' change agents Bradley and Bush (27), followed by those betting on early front-runners Gore and Bush (10), and the two mavericks, McCain and Bradley (7).

Campaign-reform advocates are dubious of this double-giving. After all, they reason, why would a CEO who really believes in the views and ideology of a candidate give money to his rival? ''This illustrates the investment theory of politics,'' says Ellen S. Miller, executive director of Clean Campaign, which promotes public financing of campaigns. ''These donors think, 'no matter who wins, we'll have our hand in his pocket.'''

Thus far, about 60% of the top CEOs have remained on the political sidelines, watching the primary races unfold. With record spending expected in Campaign 2000, there'll be plenty more opportunities--and importunities--for them to get involved.

By Richard S. Dunham in Washington, with Fred Jesperson in New York and bureau reports

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Who the Corporate Bosses Are Backing

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ONLINE ORIGINAL: What the CEOs Say about the Candidates

ONLINE ORIGINAL: Good Thing Steve Forbes Doesn't Need CEOs' Cash

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