Kerry starts hunt for dollars to fight GOP's attack ads

Dean lends his support

Democrats hope to raise $80 million by end of July

March 26, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - John Kerry returned to the campaign trail yesterday after a week of snowboarding and relaxing at his posh Idaho vacation home to face the daunting - and crucial - task of raising tens of millions of dollars to counter President Bush in a fast-intensifying presidential race.

Shuttling around Washington on the equivalent of a political victory lap, Kerry picked up the endorsement of his one-time rival Howard Dean and a major public-sector union. He capped off the day with a Democratic "unity" dinner featuring former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore.

At a rally in a sun-drenched courtyard at George Washington University, Kerry urged a crowd of students to get involved in the campaign, saying, "The change starts with you."

"This is an election for a generation, if not a lifetime," Kerry said, sharing the stage with Dean as he accepted his endorsement. "There is more at stake than I've seen at any time that I've been in public life."

Later, the presumptive nominee told a hall full of supporters at the "Democrats United" dinner that he wants to elevate the tone of the campaign.

"America deserves better than a debate that is simply full of attacks and distortions," Kerry said at the fund-raiser, which campaign officials estimated would rake in $11 million, a Democratic record for direct donations at a single event.

Most of Kerry's Democratic opponents attended the dinner, where he concluded by urging Democrats to work to "win this election and win back and reclaim our own democracy."

Behind the scenes, yesterday's events were driven by the need to finance a long race against Bush, who has amassed a campaign treasury of $170 million.

Kerry is set to hit the trail over the next month, in events that will take him to 20 cities, with the goal of raising $20 million by the first week in May.

The campaign hopes to raise $80 million by the end of July, when Democrats head to Boston for the convention.

"It would allow us to conduct the kind of competitive campaign we need to win," said Michael Meehan, a Kerry spokesman.

The Kerry campaign is at a big disadvantage just as a television advertising war with Bush escalates. While the Bush team has spent $23 million on ads this month, Kerry has spent just $4.5 million. But advertising by two groups that back Kerry, and the Media Fund, are helping narrow the gap.

At the same time, Kerry has seen his standing in the polls slip, in a signal that Bush's well-funded attack ads are having an effect with voters. Kerry enjoyed a slight lead over Bush in polls after his decisive Super Tuesday victories confirmed his position as the presumptive Democratic nominee. Now, that modest advantage has faded.

At George Washington University, Dean told students - many of them wearing "Dean for America" shirts, stickers and buttons - that he's ready to put the "tough campaign" behind him and work to elect Kerry.

"There are things in the campaign we talked about, focusing on the things that divide us," he said. "Now, we're going to talk about the things that we have in common."

"I trust John Kerry - that's who I'm voting for, and that's who I'm working for. We're sending George Bush back to Crawford, Texas," Dean said.

What's less clear is how Dean plans to help Kerry. Dean has converted his campaign into a grass-roots political operation, Democracy for America, which boasts a list of 700,000 backers and potential donors. Dean plans to write to his and Kerry's supporters asking for donations.

As Democrats, including most of Kerry's former rivals, throw their support to him, many of their top donors and fund-raisers are also flocking to Kerry.

Democrats "will not raise the $200 million that Bush has, but $100 million will give Kerry the opportunity to respond and to get his message out," said Tony Coelho, a former congressman who was chairman of Gore's 2000 campaign. Coelho said he expects the campaign to surpass its $80 million target.

Online fund-raising drives this month have drawn $20 million in small donations - averaging $100 - breaking Web fund-raising records, Meehan said.

The money will be vital to Kerry's bid as he goes head to head with Bush, who polls show is benefiting from his ability to spend freely on ads.

A national survey conducted last week by Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling group, showed Bush leading Kerry 50 percent to 47 percent, a turnabout from the same poll last month that showed Kerry leading Bush 51 percent to 47 percent.

The poll found that Bush managed to raise negative perceptions of Kerry by 10 percentage points, to 39 percent. Other polls that earlier showed Kerry slightly leading Bush now show them tied or with Bush leading.

"Bush's attacks penetrated," said Jim Gerstein, executive director of Democracy Corps. "But Bush's own positives did not go up during this period."

Kerry's hiatus, some Democrats say confidentially, allowed Bush and Republicans to define the senator, who remains all but unknown to many Americans.

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