Everything is for sale, and this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Denver is no exception.

More than four dozen national corporations have signed up as sponsors of the convention — everyone from Allstate to Xerox. And almost all of them have the same thing in common: They either have business with the federal government or they lobby on pending issues.

And that prompts a myriad of questions.

Are the big companies simply being good corporate citizens? Or are they looking for access — maybe not to the presidential nominee, but to members of Congress and party officials who can help make sure their issues get heard?

The answer is simple, said former Denver City Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt: “It’s always about access.”

“Here’s the reality,” Barnes-Gelt said, “and this comes from the experience of an old fundraiser: The first people you go to for money are people who have an interest in making sure you’re in a decision-making position. And that’s true whether you’re the DNC, the president of the United States or the local city council person.”

To date, the Democratic National Convention Host Committee has lined up 56 corporate sponsors.

A few have local ties, like Qwest, Molson Coors and Vail Resorts. Others are huge national corporations, such as Anheuser-Busch, Union Pacific and 3M.

It is not a phenomenon unique to the Democrats or Denver. A slew of corporate donors have lined up for the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, and 20 of them also are sponsoring the DNC.

They include companies like 3M, Allstate, AstraZeneca, AT&T, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., Ford, Merck, Qwest, the Service Employees International Union, US Bank, Visa and Xcel Energy.

“Welcome to the American political system,” Barnes-Gelt said of the companies ponying up money on both sides of the aisle.

Chris Lopez of the Democratic National Convention Host Committee acknowledged that sponsors get “opportunities” that depend on the level of their support. Those opportunities can include tickets to events surrounding the convention and even access to the Pepsi Center itself, where the convention will be held.

The host committee does not have to file documents outlining the level of sponsorships until after the convention. But Lopez said the access goes up as the contributions do.

Massie Ritsch of the Center for Responsive Politics said corporations sponsor political conventions for the same reason they sponsor sporting events: to build goodwill. And at political conventions, executives get access to influential people, Ritsch said. “Corporations aren’t allowed to contribute directly to political parties or candidates’ campaigns, but they can subsidize the gatherings that show off a party’s candidate to American voters and get the candidate officially nominated,” Ritsch wrote in an e-mail interview.

“Money from these corporate donors helps the party, it helps the candidate, and to call it anything other than a campaign contribution is to make a distinction without a difference.”

Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may be spending all their time talking about flag pins and the Iraq war, about a gas tax holiday and health care, but federal Lobbying Disclosure Act records show the companies sponsoring this summer’s convention in Denver have many other interests in Washington.

Qwest, for example, is interested in a rewrite of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Molson Coors has an interest in tax policy, alcohol advertising and self- regulation, excise taxes on beer and other issues. Coca-Cola is looking at the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2007 and other issues.

And on it goes — scores of issues the sponsors have lobbied on.

“Since the conventions are basically party functions, and the money goes to pay for what the party wants to do, in part these convention contributions are like campaign contributions,” said Steve Weissman of the Campaign Finance Institute. “And campaign contributions reinforce lobbying representations because you can get in much more easily to see somebody if you’re a donor.”

Weissman said he believes that convention sponsorships amount to contributions directly to political candidates.

“We have long made the point that even if some of these companies and individuals have in their mind that they are contributing to support the promotion of the local city, like Denver, that that may not be the only thing they have in their mind,” Weissman said. “And whatever they have in their mind, it will be something that can add to the bonds of gratitude of political candidates.

“After all, what is a convention but the largest political ad?”

(Kevin Vaughan and M.E. Sprengelmeyer write for the Rocky Mountain News)