Money is Bush's new challenge

Campaign: GOP fund-raisers reject concern that the well of willing donors may be running dry.

March 20, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Shelly Kamins is handling a new challenge to the presidential aspirations of George W. Bush: how to generate more money for a candidate who has gone through so much of it so quickly.

Many of Bush's early backers have already given the legal limit. And some Republicans fear future benefactors will be scared off by the almost $70 million price tag for sewing up the GOP nomination -- a record.

There's also concern about lingering ill will from Bush's bruising primary battle with Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

But Kamins, a Montgomery County developer active in national Republican circles, is cheerfully leading the drive to raise at least $400,000 for the Texas governor on March 29 in Baltimore.

Kamins, 52, a gregarious multimillionaire with a weakness for vanilla shakes at McDonald's, rejects concerns that Bush might have exhausted the wallets of Maryland Republicans.

Instead, says Kamins, one of the original "Pioneers" who each raised at least $100,000 for Bush last year, his straight pitch works.

"The governor is our nominee," Kamins tells prospective donors. "He deserves our support. He's ahead in the polls. There's every reason to believe that he's the next president of the United States."

Adds Kamins: "It's not that there is any great subtlety to this message."

At a time when Bush was expected to be gliding toward the general election, that message will have to carry the presidential hopeful through a series of fund-raising events intended to raise an additional $10 million before this summer's national convention.

On Thursday, Bush attended a $1,000-a-ticket function in Wheaton, Ill. Stops are also planned this month in Palm Beach, Fla.; Little Rock, Ark.; Warrenton, Va.; Parsippany, N.J.; and New York City.

Bush declined a federal subsidy in the primary campaign so he would not be bound by federal limits on how much he could raise and spend. But the battle with McCain emptied much of his campaign fund, and Bush has decided to accept the $67 million in federal funding for the general election race.

Both Bush and Vice President Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, stand to benefit from spending in excess of $100 million by their respective national parties. But because he has relatively little cash on hand, Bush needs to raise more money if he is to maintain the pace of the campaign.

"I don't know that anybody knows how many Americans want to participate in Governor Bush's campaign," said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. "We believe we will be successful in raising an additional $5 million to $10 million before April is done."

"I think we're going to have an enthusiastic crowd" at the Baltimore event, says Baltimore businessman Richard E. Hug, co-chairman of Bush's campaign in Maryland. "There are scores of people who will be coming here. There are a lot of people who aren't tapped [out]. There are a lot of spouses that aren't tapped out."

Bush has been successful in earlier forays into Maryland. Last year, he raised $1.25 million from the heavily Democratic state -- $400,000 of it from the greater Baltimore region, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions.

But Bush's well of willing donors may be running dry. Federal campaign finance laws prohibit any citizen from donating more than $1,000 to any single campaign. And some possible contributors are questioning why they should chip in for a candidate who has already spent so heavily.

"People don't understand how you can roll through $50 million or more in so short a time and with so little to show for it," says one Maryland political professional helping to arrange Bush events, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The unpaid brain trust for the Baltimore fund-raiser -- which includes Kamins, Hug and two-time GOP gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey -- has devised an elaborate structure for the March 29 event in an attempt to attract fresh donations.

The evening will consist of two separate functions at the Hyatt at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. First, if all goes as organizers hope, there will be a private reception for 200 to 250 people who have each contributed $1,000 to listen to brief remarks from Bush, who will then field questions. After that, the governor will deliver a rally-style speech to a crowd of about 1,500 supporters who have each given $100.

People who have already donated the maximum $1,000 to the Bush campaign can still participate in one of two ways, organizers say. They can write their checks to the Maryland Victory 2000 fund, a state party account that will largely be used to promote Bush's fortunes in the state. Or a donor can attend the smaller reception for free if he or she corrals three friends or family members who contribute $1,000 apiece.

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