Clinton fund blitz helps Democrats and her

Recipients reap bounty as N.Y. senator enhances her national stature

October 03, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's fund-raising blitz moves so fast that sometimes the recipients of her political bounty don't even see her coming.

This was true for Chris Van Hollen, the Democratic state senator hoping to unseat Constance A. Morella, Montgomery County's eight-term Republican congresswoman. Clinton's strategists began planning a fund-raiser for Van Hollen so soon after he won his primary that he never even got the chance to ask for help.

"I called her office shortly after the primary and they already had reserved a place on their calendar," said Van Hollen of the New York senator, who promoted his candidacy and enriched his campaign war chest at a fund-raiser in Chevy Chase last night.

Few politicians are as busy raising campaign funds as the former first lady, who has been crisscrossing the country to help Democratic candidates in next month's election, in which control of both houses of Congress is at stake.

The hard work is not entirely selfless. Clinton's activities enhance the stature of those she helps - as well as her own. At the least, she is working to preserve her influence in the Congress, since Democrats can achieve more when their party holds a majority.

National ambitions

Beyond that, Clinton's investment in the success of fellow Democrats, who include candidates in state elections as well as congressional races, could further her presumed national ambitions as, inevitably, her efforts fuel speculation that she will run for president one day.

"That's what it's all about - getting Hillary to the White House," said Bonnie Garrett, a retired economist from Bethesda who cheered Clinton at last night's Van Hollen fund-raiser. "If not Hillary, what other woman?"

Clinton's fund-raising efforts for candidates in two critical presidential testing grounds - Iowa and New Hampshire - have only added to the buzz that she might launch a presidential bid in 2008. Her political action committee, HILLPAC, which retains some savvy advisers with experience in presidential politics, enables Clinton to maintain a national political apparatus in waiting. All the campaign networking, meanwhile, adds powerful contacts to Clinton's Rolodex.

"Hillary Clinton's national activities create relationships that are necessary to get things done, and they increase the potential that she'd have a national base to run on," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist. "She's developing relationships among Democrats that are hers and hers alone - they're not her husband's. That's smart politics."

By appearing at fund-raisers as often as four times a week, opening the home she and her husband own in Washington for dozens of events, and giving $599,000 to date to candidates around the country through HILLPAC, Clinton is forging alliances and banking chits that leave many Democrats in her debt.

During most of her first two years in office, Clinton has tried to blend into the Senate ranks, winning over even some detractors who had said that she would upstage her colleagues. But that low profile has disappeared during this campaign season, when she began raising money for fellow Democrats in a style that reflects her national following.

"She's one of the outstanding leaders of this party," said Al From, who heads the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "She's got a national fund-raising base, she's a senator from one of the country's biggest states, she's a former first lady, she has something to say and she has a lot of support, so she's going to raise a lot of money."

Last night's event at the Woman's Club of Chevy Chase used Clinton's star power to draw roughly 350 donors, raising more than $100,000 for Van Hollen's bid. Donors sipped wine and buzzed about Clinton, who marched directly onto the stage to speak - mingling only with those Marylanders who attended a $1,000-a-person VIP reception beforehand.

"I do think it takes a village to elect a great congressman, and that's what's going to happen," Clinton told the gathering.

Her pitch was national in tone as she railed against the "extremist agenda" that she said the Republicans would pursue if they gain control of both houses of Congress.

Money for Townsend

The senator will surface in Maryland again on Oct. 16, playing host at a 900-person pep rally at a Bethesda hotel, an attempt to turn out the women's vote for Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Clinton's husband, Bill, the former president, will headline a fund-raiser for the lieutenant governor two days later.

Though Clinton's advisers say she has to turn down more fund-raising invitations than she can accept, some Democrats are struck by Clinton's enthusiasm about her grueling schedule.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, casually asked Clinton last month if she could lend a hand in the Maryland governor's race.

"She was very excited," Cummings said. "Next thing you know, it was done."

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