Early Republican fund raising goes at record pace

ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

July 01, 1995|By Paul West | Paul West,Federal Election Commission (1st Quarter figures); presidential campaigns (2nd Quarter and cash-on-hand estimates)Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Never have so many given so much so early.

The Republican presidential contenders are scooping up campaign contributions at a record clip -- more than $42 million over the past six months, according to Federal Election Commission reports and campaign officials.

They're operating on a proven theory: The candidate who raises the most cash this year will roll to victory next year. But some Republicans believe that the old rules may not apply. The gold rush of '95, they say, could play out in some surprising ways, making the path to the nomination much more tortuous than usual next year.

Earlier this year, four of the Republican candidates set ambitious fund-raising goals for 1995. Sens. Bob Dole and Phil Gramm, Gov. Pete Wilson and former Gov. Lamar Alexander each planned to raise at least $20 million.

That's more than any presidential candidate had ever collected in a pre-election year. But with most delegates being chosen earlier than ever next year, campaign strategists thought that a big bankroll would be needed at the start to capture the nomination this time.

Based on the latest batch of financial information, however, it looks increasingly doubtful that all four will reach that target.

Mr. Dole, capitalizing on his early lead in the polls and his position as Senate majority leader, has the best chance. During the three-month that ended yesterday, he banked about $9 million and surpassed Mr. Gramm as the top fund-raiser among Republican hopefuls.

"What we've done is take advantage of our front-runner status to go out and raise a lot of money," said William Lacy, Mr. Dole's deputy campaign chairman. "Phil Gramm really got out front of things and caused the campaign to be joined much earlier than it would have been otherwise. That may come back to haunt him."

Mr. Gramm, who boasted at a Dallas fund-raiser in February that he had the politician's best friend, "ready money," isn't finding that money so readily available. Since March, Mr. Gramm actually spent more than he raised, but a spokesman, Gary Koops, insisted that the Texan's campaign still is "right where we want to be" and will reach its $20 million target.

Mr. Wilson, whose candidacy struggled for months to get off the ground, has managed to collect about $3.5 million, less than half the $8 million his aides claimed had been pledged this spring. As governor of California, which yields one of every four Republican dollars contributed nationally, Mr. Wilson could still meet his '95 fund-raising target, but most of his opponents doubt it.

Mr. Alexander is less than halfway to the $20 million goal and, having already tapped heavily into his home state of Tennessee, will find it difficult to get there.

The biggest surprise in the latest round of campaign reports was the $3 million collected by Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, who has been virtually ignored by the national news media. Like Mr. Alexander, though, he could find it difficult to continue at that pace after tapping his existing base of supporters.

Other candidates, including Patrick Buchanan and Maryland talk-show host Alan Keyes, declined to say how their fund-raising is going. The information will become public by mid-July, when finance reports are to be filed with the FEC.

The millions raised to date may be impressive by historical standards, but these are among the easiest dollars to collect -- from past donors caught up in the emotion of a candidate's plunge into the presidential pool.

"There's a question now as to who can actually raise the money," said a Republican official with close ties to most of the contenders, who spoke on condition he not be identified. "I think they all expected to be further along than they are."

Among the factors hampering the money-raisers: There are only so many people around who can easily cough up the maximum individual contribution of $1,000.

"When Richard Nixon ran for re-election in 1972, a total of 320 people gave him $22 million," said the Republican fund-raising veteran. "In 1988, George Bush had 20,000 people give between $500 and $1,000."

Mr. Bush, then a sitting vice president, set the record for fund-raising in a pre-election year: $18.7 million. By comparison, Bill Clinton collected $3.2 million by the start of 1992, tops for Democrats that year. (As an incumbent president, he has raised more than $9 million in less than three months.)

Much more than bragging rights is involved in the race for early contributions. Many Republicans believe the nomination is at stake.

"It has always been assumed that the candidate who raised the most money will become the nominee in the general election," said Stan Huckaby, a leading Republican fund-raiser. "The key to victory is a lot of money at an early date."

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