Clinton to bring his glitter to town on behalf of Gore

President remains Democrats' big star in `soft money' race

March 15, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The fare will be sumptuous -- salmon fillet, vegetable couscous and a light, lemon dessert -- but the real drawing card at tonight's Democratic fund-raiser at Baltimore's Inner Harbor will be a soon-to-be-unemployed baby boomer whose name will not appear on any ballot this November: Bill Clinton.

The $5,000-a-plate event at the Harbor Court Hotel is one in a series of presidential appearances designed to help secure a record haul of "soft money" for the Democratic Party, $100 million in all.

Clinton and Vice President Al Gore have called on Texas Gov. George W. Bush to join them in trying to ban such unregulated donations, but they have not stopped seeking them eagerly and openly.

"If Governor Bush were to say at 1 p.m. this afternoon he is directing the [Republican National Committee] to stop raising soft money, we would stop at 1: 01," said Ed Rendell, the former mayor of Philadelphia who heads the Democratic National Committee. "But we're not going into this boxing match with one arm tied behind our back. That would be stupid."

Clinton is the Democrats' heavy artillery, a prolific, indefatigable fund-raiser who can tell the party's richest patrons to forget Bush's alluring assurance of sweeping tax cuts in favor of Gore's promises of more federal spending on education and health care, even as he takes their money.

At a $10,000-a-couple dinner Monday night at the Lincolnwood, Ill., home of trial lawyer Mike Cherry, the president told 60 well-to-do attendees, "You wouldn't be here, you'd be at somebody else's dinner, if you didn't also think that the people that served your food ought to make a decent living."

The fund-raiser in chief has been asked to raise $20 million toward the party's $100 million target. By the end of this month, he will have headlined more than 35 DNC fund-raisers this year. Monday, he appeared at Democratic events in Cleveland, Chicago and Lincolnwood.

Angelos sponsors event

Tonight's event, sponsored by Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, will bring together the biggest Democratic names in the state, among them Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, to raise at least $550,000. Three-fourths of that will be soft money for get-out-the-vote activities and thinly veiled "issue advertisements" to talk up Gore's record and downgrade Bush's. The rest will be parceled out to Democratic candidates as strictly regulated "hard money."

Early next month, the president will be back in Maryland, passing the hat at the Annapolis home of Wayne Rogers, the state party chairman.

Such events yield big money. In 1998, Democratic Party events headlined by the president raised $19 million. Last year, they raised $22 million. This year, more than $6 million has come in.

In addition, Clinton has raised $5.7 million in soft money to promote Democratic House candidates this year and $8.4 million for Democratic Senate candidates.

Clinton `connects'

"There's nobody on the face of the Earth who could match Bill Clinton in fund raising," said Jeffrey Hirschberg, a top Gore money man and Ernst & Young consultant. "It's his personality. He connects with people. He connects with their eyes. He connects with their hearts. He connects with their minds."

For all his gaudy numbers, Clinton cannot bring the Democrats to financial parity with the GOP. Republicans have set a soft-money goal of $177 million for the coming campaign, RNC spokesman Mark Pfeifle said, but the party expects to raise at least $200 million, double the Democratic target.

Democrats receive their largest contributions from labor unions and trial lawyers. Republicans have a broad base of affluent supporters to tap and routinely enjoy a fund-raising advantage.

Parties likely to top record

If the parties reach their goals, they will easily break the soft-money record of $262 million set in 1996, when the scramble for cash yielded fund-raising excesses that are still reverberating across the political landscape. Bush has seized on some of those excesses -- particularly the vice president's fund-raising visit to a Southern California Buddhist temple -- to question Gore's fitness for office.

Republicans are not bashful about questioning Clinton's current activities, even as they more than match them in the money arena. As long as Clinton is on the money trail, Republicans believe they have a direct link between the Gore campaign and the abuses of 1996, when donations rolled into the Democratic Party from Chinese sources and shady figures.

"At least it provides us a way of highlighting the excesses of the '96 campaign," said Nelson Warfield, a Republican strategist and spokesman for Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.

When Gore challenged Bush last week to forgo soft money and 30- and 60-second campaign ads, the apparent GOP standard-bearer fired back, "The first thing he needs to do is debate Bill Clinton on soft money."

No unilateral party effort

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