When they graduated from Georgetown University in 1968, Thomas L. Siebert and Bill Clinton went separate ways. Clinton eventually becoming governor of Arkansas and Siebert became an attorney in Annapolis.
They were reunited last night at a fund-raiser at Siebert's house -- one of several such events former classmates have hosted for Clinton, a leading Democratic presidential candidate.
"It's a generation thing," said Siebert. "This is effectively the first baby boom candidate to mount what we think will be a credible challenge to the existing structure."
The efforts of former school chums have helped Clinton take what appears to be a widening fund-raising lead over other Democratic hopefuls. He has about $2.2 million in the bank, says campaign spokesman Richard I. Mintz.
Last night's event was expected to generate as much as $50,000, with guests paying up to $1,000 apiece to indulge in drinks, crab cakes and conversation with Clinton, Siebert said.
The other candidates trail Clinton, though it's not clear by how much. A spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa refused to disclose the state of his finances, but conceded that Clinton is ahead.
Clinton's fund-raising success is a significant advantage, says Nathan Landow, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party and a major political fund-raiser who hasn't yet committed himself to a candidate.
"I think it's always very important how a candidate starts. The success that a candidate has in early fund-raising in the campaign is critical to the success that he'll have as the campaign progresses," Landow said. "Without those monies up front early on, it makes it very difficult to be very competitive for very long."
Landow recalled that Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., faltered in his 1988 presidential run by putting all his resources into the Iowa caucuses in February. He did well, but then ran out of money. Michael Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts, rode to victory in the Democratic race that year on the strength of a successful national fund-raising organization.
Early fund-raising success also helps build a winning aura around a candidate.
"In politics, as you know, perception is everything," Landow said. "The perception is, if there's success in fund-raising . . . political [success] should fall right in hand."
Clinton's pre-primary momentum was apparent at the State House in Annapolis last night when dozens of Maryland supporters gathered to greet him before he went to Siebert's house.
Eighteen of the 47 Maryland senators have endorsed him, as have 36 delegates and at least 44 other state, local and Democratic Party officials.
"I think people want to win," said Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, D-City, explaining the cross-section of Democratic officials supporting Clinton.
Maryland's primary is March 3. Party officials and political experts believe it's a wide-open contest between Clinton, Harkin, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, with former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts given longer odds.
All the candidates, Clinton included, are having to work hard for funds this year. The recession is taking a toll, Landow says.
"I think that the candidates have set their sights far lower than presidential candidates have in the past race, the past two or three races," he said. "Because of the recession people are not contributing as high a dollar [amount]."
Democratic and Republican candidates received a total of $6.37 million in federal matching funds last week, the first such payment. By contrast, presidential candidates in 1988 received $26 million in the first payout.
But the recession isn't the only factor. There were more candidates at this stage four years ago because no incumbent was running, and some candidates began their races two years before the election.
Clinton's staff is eager to play up his ability to raise money, hoping to create a bandwagon before the first primary.
Former Dukakis fund-raiser Robert Farmer "has said money is the first primary. So perhaps we've won the first primary," Mintz boasted.
Siebert said Clinton's ex-classmates will continue to do their part. Though they haven't all kept in close touch over the years, they consider "Bill Clinton's candidacy to be our moment."