Gore taps lightly in fund raising 2000 election coffers build at modest pace

'96 controversy hurts

July 03, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Next weekend, Vice President Al Gore will rub elbows in Nashville, Tenn., with a few hundred of his closest friends and supporters. Officially, the two-day Gorefest at the Opryland Hotel will raise money for the vice president's political action committee. Unofficially, it is the first major gathering of Gore's fund-raising network for his 2000 presidential campaign.

The event is expected to collect $1.5 million, a senior Gore aide said. But according to several Gore money men, the PAC's fund-raising effort has gotten off to a sluggish start that can be traced to the 1996 Democratic campaign finance scandal.

The modest pace has nothing to do with the vice president's popularity, his supporters insist. Instead, it stems in part from Gore's reluctance to do anything that overtly advances his prospective presidential candidacy, on the theory that the best strategy is for him be seen doing his job as vice president as long as possible.

At the same time, though, these backers say Gore is still reeling from the impact of the 1996 campaign controversies. He was embarrassed, and his once spotless reputation was marred, by revelations that he participated in a fund-raising event at a Buddhist temple in California and made dozens of fund-raising phone calls from his White House office.

Republicans called for a special prosecutor, and the Justice Department looked into whether his actions violated a law against raising campaign money on government property. Attorney General Janet Reno concluded that they did not.

"He is so shell-shocked," said a Gore confidant who has pledged to raise $100,000 for the vice president. Another veteran Democratic fund-raiser, who promised to raise $50,000 for Gore, described the vice president as "gun-shy" and said Gore had over-reacted to his 1996 experiences.

Reflecting the vice president's caution, his PAC has gone to unusual lengths to avoid reviving memories of the campaign finance scandal. An outside consultant was hired to screen the backgrounds of individual contributors. The idea was to protect Gore from accepting any money from any donors whose generosity might prove embarrassing once it became public.

After paying more than $50,000 for this "vetting service," the PAC recently dropped the consultant, according to Marla Romash, a spokeswoman for Gore's committee. "It was getting way too expensive," she said. Now, employees of Gore's PAC will do the screening.

Closed gathering

Apparently as part of the effort to downplay Gore's personal fund-raising role, the July 11-12 gathering in Nashville has been closed to reporters. And a senior Gore aide said the vice president may hold only one other major fund-raiser for his PAC this year -- in New York, away from the Washington-based political press corps.

Money raised by Gore's PAC goes to defray the cost of the vice-president's political travel, employ staffers who will form the nucleus of his early presidential campaign, and contribute to Democratic candidates who, it is hoped, will return the favor by endorsing Gore when he runs.

Its officers, who are expected to take prominent, if largely honorary, positions in Gore's 2000 campaign, are Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, Mayor Dennis Archer of Detroit, Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia and Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California.

The PAC, known as Leadership '98, raised less than $750,000 from its founding in February through mid-year. "They ought to have $2 million in the bank," said the Gore confidant.

His spokeswoman denied that Gore is shying away from fund-raising or that there may be problems meeting the PAC's $4 million fund-raising target in time to help other Democrats this year.

"He's doing fund-raisers every day for the DNC, for candidates," Romash said.

She added that the PAC would have enough money to give at least $1 million to Democratic candidates in the 1998 election.

The vice president has been on the road several days a week, promoting administration initiatives and his own ambitions. On these trips, Gore often takes time to meet privately with potential contributors.

He is also holding a series of small, private "money dinners" in Washington that have thus far drawn no public attention.

Private dinners have long been a way for politicians to encourage or reward major donors. But in 1995 and 1996, Clinton and Gore took this traditional vehicle to places it had never been before. They presided over the controversial series of White House coffee klatches for donors who gave millions of dollars to the Democratic National Committee. Gore's wife, Tipper, also served as host at five coffees held at the vice presidential mansion.

Informal dinners

Unlike the White House coffees, which drew intense criticism and a congressional investigation, the new round of Gore dinners are apparently not being held on government property. Some of them have been at the Mayflower Hotel, near the White House.

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