The money chase


Raleigh News & Observer

Mark Erwin has gotten the why-I’m-gonna-be-the-next-president-of-the-United-States sales pitch in person from Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards and John McCain.

The Charlotte, N.C., businessman, a registered independent, ruled out contributing to McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona, on philosophical grounds. But he is torn between Edwards, the home boy and former senator, and Clinton, whose husband, an old golfing buddy, appointed him U.S. ambassador to several small islands in the Indian Ocean.

So he is sending checks to both.

“I’ve made it clear to both campaigns,” Erwin said. “I have split loyalty.”

Winning the support of deep-pocketed donors such as Erwin is critical for Edwards as he seeks to compete with the powerful money machine being assembled by two other Democrats, Sen. Clinton of New York and, to a lesser extent, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who has fresh-faced appeal.

The scramble for money is an early and critical test for presidential candidates. The Democratic nomination can be shaped — and maybe won or lost — in the next few months, even though the campaigning goes on largely behind closed doors in exclusive clubs, wealthy neighborhoods and swanky hotel rooms.

If the candidates don’t raise millions of dollars in early 2007, they might not even make it to the starting line next January, when the first actual votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses.

Presidential elections have long been expensive, but the spending in 2008 is expected to leave all previous campaigns in the dust. It is a wide-open race. Also, the cost of TV advertising and organizing is rising, and the key state primaries and caucuses will be clustered early in a fast and furious selection process.

For the major presidential candidates, fund-raising has become all-consuming.

“They should be spending more time fund-raising than sleeping,” said Tad Devine, a senior strategist for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004. “If you want to win, you must spend almost all your time raising money.”

Four years ago, Edwards established himself as a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination when he raised $7.4 million during the first three months of 2003 and led the field. Clinton plans to raise $15 million in the first quarter and $75 million for the year, said Blake Zeff, a Clinton spokesman. Typically candidates low-ball their predictions.

John Catsimatidis, a New York businessman and member of the Clinton finance committee, predicted that Clinton would raise twice as much money as her nearest competitor.

“It’s very formidable, especially with the former president behind it,” Catsimatidis said. “Who’s going to refuse a phone call from Bill Clinton? The same thing was done by George Bush Sr. for his son in 2000. George Bush Sr. was so well-respected.”

The Edwards campaign has not announced a fund-raising goal. But Edwards’ money people say at least $50 million is needed to be competitive with Clinton.

“I’ve heard Hillary and them plan to raise $100 million,” said Wade E. Byrd, a Fayetteville, N.C., trial lawyer and Edwards fund-raiser. “We don’t have any such plans. But we do think half of that is probably going to be necessary. It’s just mind-blowing.”

John Collins, a Texas trial lawyer and fund-raiser for Edwards, said Edwards is off to a good start. But he does not underestimate the difficulty of keeping pace with Clinton.

Edwards must raise nearly $1 million per week just to be competitive, he said.

“It will be a tough uphill battle,” Collins said.

Which is why Edwards has scheduled 24 fund-raisers over 19 days in February. Edwards is starting behind Clinton, who not only has a wide range of contacts from her White House days but also has more than $11 million left from her 2006 Senate re-election campaign. Edwards did not begin fund-raising until January, having spent 2006 helping raise $8.5 million for Democratic candidates and causes.

Both Clinton and Edwards have announced they will not participate in the public financing system during the primaries. That will deprive them of public money but will let them bypass an estimated $50 million primary spending limit. Obama is weighing whether to do the same.