An Early Push For Party Cash

By Ann Scales, Globe Staff, March 22, 1999

WASHINGTON -- Shortly after the November elections, Democratic congressional leaders huddled with President Clinton to plot a strategy for keeping the White House and recapturing the House and Senate in 2000.

Besides recruiting top-flight candidates for open seats and unifying Democrats around an agenda, the consensus was to do one other thing -- get Clinton out of the White House and on the money trail as quickly as possible.

Now that the president has been freed from the threat to remove him from office and relieved of the pressure to keep his job-approval rating high during a sex scandal and impeachment, he has increasingly turned his focus to raising money for Democrats.

Party strategists say Clinton, always a prodigious fund-raiser, has embarked on perhaps his earliest start in a non-election year.

"What is a little different is the timing," one Democratic strategist said. "He's starting in the off-year rather than waiting for the election year" when the competition for campaign cash will be more fierce.

Clinton's strategy of hosting coffees and overnight stays for major Democratic donors in 1995 and 1996 backfired and led to several investigations after his reelection.

This time, the president seems to be leaving nothing to chance, going to donors rather than having them come to him. With his vice president and possibly his wife on ballots next year and with a huge debt owed to Democrats who stood by him during the yearlong scandal, he has taken to traveling across the country early to raise money for fellow Democrats.

His critics say fund-raising is about all that is left for Clinton to do, given that he is in the next-to-last year of his presidency and that Vice President Al Gore's presidential ambitions and Hillary Rodham Clinton's possible run for the Senate from New York have gained much attention. They also say the emphasis on fund-raising is a function of a White House that has run out of ideas and one without an urgency to showcase Clinton looking presidential.

"Obviously, the impeachment process knocked a lot of wind out of this administration," said Mark Rozell, who teaches political science at the University of Pennsylvania's Washington campus. "The danger is that during a period when he's trying to create a legacy for the future, he's spending his time on what appears to most of the country as petty politics, partisan politics, and raising money."

But the president's defenders say politics has not taken a back seat to policy, and Clinton is focused on both. "This guy works an incredible amount," said Douglas B. Sosnik, a senior White House adviser. "I don't think anybody in America feels shortchanged."

After limiting his fund-raising activities in January and early February during his Senate impeachment trial to just three events in reliable Democratic turf -- Boston, New York, and Washington -- Clinton has broadened his travels, reaching out to donors across the country.

So far, his efforts have paid off. He has headlined fund-raisers that collected more than $8.3 million for Democratic candidates during what is traditionally the slowest period -- the first quarter of the year following an election.

This week, the president will again take his fund-raising show on the road, traveling to Cincinnati and Las Vegas on Thursday and to Los Angeles on Friday. Tomorrow, Clinton will appear at two fund-raisers in Washington.

In the following three weeks, he will be featured at fund-raisers in Detroit, Houston, Dallas, and Washington, as well as Boston on April 16. And that schedule does not include any planned trips to fill the campaign coffers of individual candidates and state Democratic parties.

Earlier this month at a Texarkana fund-raiser for Representative Max Sandlin, a Texas Democrat, Clinton said, "I can now go around and I can go to fund-raisers like this and none of them are for me. And I love that."

He added, "I love the idea that if I can stay healthy, I can spend quite a few years trying to give back to this political system and to candidates and to people I believe in who have given me so much."

GOP strategist Ed Rollins later countered, "This is a guy who would much rather be out being adored by partisan crowds than sitting in the White House doing policy stuff."

Clinton is not the first president to use his office as a platform to raise money for his party or its candidates. In the 1970s, President Nixon actively campaigned and raised money for Republican congressional candidates, said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. But President Reagan was the first to make a major effort to raise money for his party, he said.

"Nixon spent most of his fund-raising time raising money for Nixon, though some of it was for specific congressional candidates," Ornstein said. "Reagan raised it for the party."

By contrast, Clinton "has been more active" on the fund-raising front, he said, "but it really is a matter of scale. He is, after all, a bit more energetic."

About half of the $8.3 million Clinton has helped raise so far this year has gone directly to the Democratic National Committee, which would benefit Gore if he becomes the party's nominee for president. The DNC is expected to spend some of the funds on party-building activities, such as issue-advocacy ads that highlight the Democrats' positions and also help sell the presidential candidate.

Clinton also has committed to attend nine fund-raisers for the Democratic Senatorial Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that are expected to collect at least $9 million as part of a campaign called "Majority 2000."

The president's supporters said he is determined to use his appeal to help the Democrats overcome the traditional disadvantage of being outspent by Republicans. "We've learned our lesson," said one senior Clinton aide. As a result, the aide said, "You will see us do a steady run this year of fund-raising."


Clinton fund-raising for Democrats

President Clinton has helped Democrats raise $8.34 million so far this year, at various fund-raisers around the country.

Completed trips

Date Location Amount raised

Jan. 15: Washington $1.3 million

Feb. 2: Boston $800,000

New York $1.1 million

Feb. 18: New Hampshire $200,000

Feb. 25: San Francisco $1.2 million

Feb. 26: Los Angeles $200,000

March 3: New Jersey $2.1 million

March 12: Texarkana, Tex. $540,000

March 13: Little Rock, Ark. $400,000

March 16: Florida $500,000

TOTAL: $8,340,000

Some upcoming trips:

Date Location

March 25: Cincinnati and Las Vegas

March 26: Los Angeles

April 16: Detroit and Boston

April 21: Houston and Dallas

Date Location

Late April: Washington, DC

May 15: Los Angeles

May 19: New York City

SOURCES: Democratic National Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the White House.

Globe staff chart