For sale to the highest bidders

Barack Obama and John McCain have burnished images as politicians who keep special interests at arms’ length, yet there won’t be much stiff-arming at their nominating conventions.

For the next two weeks — in Denver and then St. Paul, Minn. — corporations, unions, advocacy groups and politicians will be shoulder to shoulder if not in a warm embrace.

Business and labor interests have donated millions to the Democratic and Republican convention host committees in exchange for premium seats and special access. Many institutions will also hold parties and receptions where lawmakers can get an earful — though not more than a mouthful — from lobbyists and their clients.

New ethics restrictions have changed the comfort level for convention parties and receptions. The rules permit food and refreshment of a nominal value, but not a meal. That limitation has turned questions once left to the kitchen, such as when finger food is more than just an hors d’oeuvre, into head-scratching legal issues.

The rules aim to do away with the lavish extravaganzas of past conventions, where powerful members of Congress were feted by interest groups pleading their legislative cases.

Tougher ethics rules aside, conventions remain the only activity where federal candidates can raise unrestricted amounts of money from wealthy donors, unions or corporations — donations typically called "soft money."

Why? Because the recipients are convention host committees, which technically are not political entities.

Top donors are giving $1 million or more to these committees, with a few dozen corporations, including AT&T, Coca-Cola, Pfizer and Qwest, contributing to both conventions.

Million-dollar donors to the Denver Host Committee are rewarded with suites at Invesco Field, the football stadium where Obama will deliver his acceptance speech.

Obama is also offering club level seats at Invesco and an invitation to a special reception for $1,000 to his campaign fund.

"Regardless of the parties, there is a certain political intercourse that is thrown in with other broader benefits of future access and gratitude when you become a financier of the conventions," said Stephen Weissman, associate director for policy at the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.

Obama has said he wants to reform the soft money system of financing conventions. And McCain was one of the lead authors of legislation that in 2002 did away with soft money to the political parties — a law that many watchdog groups say should have been applied to the conventions as well.

But both candidates are ready to enjoy the fruits of these big donations.

Obama, in fact, is helping the Denver Host Committee, offering his fundraising team and his big donors to raise soft money for the convention. Obama, who has banned lobbyists’ contributions to his campaign and to the Democratic National Committee, has placed the same ban on convention solicitations initiated by his campaign, aides said. Neither McCain nor the Republican National Committee reject lobbyist donations.

"While we recognize that the steps we have taken are not perfect or even a perfect symbol, they do reflect the fact that Barack Obama shares the urgent desire of the American people to change the way Washington operates," Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan said.

Money and schmoozing go hand in hand at the conventions. AT&T, for instance, is holding more than a dozen events at the conventions, and Qwest is "honoring women leaders" with a reception at the Denver Art Museum, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog group that has identified more than 400 parties at the two conventions based on data compiled by the lobbying firm of Quinn Gillespie and Associates.

The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians and other medical groups will hold joint receptions for members of Congress at both conventions.

"The idea is to give our leadership a chance to be with these folks to talk about our issues and make sure that our issues are out there," said Michael Fleming, a physician who is chairman of the board of directors of FamMedPac, the family physicians’ political action committee.

Groups such as the medical organizations have had to turn to legal counsel to make sure they are following the new ethics rules.

"You can have a cover band, but you can’t have a name act," said Jan Baran, a campaign finance lawyer well versed in the ethics rules. "You can have a string quartet, but we’re not sure you can have a DJ."

And while the rules prohibit honoring a single member of Congress, the House ethics committee has concluded that a salute to a group of House members is proper.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group that advocates stricter campaign finance laws, calls that interpretation "absurd." But he said the ethics rules will have an impact.

"Not in terms of eliminating the parties and receptions that surround the conventions, but in terms of curbing the real influence-buying events that involved lobbyists and lobbying organizations spending six-figure amounts for parties that really were parties thrown by the members themselves," he said.