The investment banker Robert Wolf first met Barack Obama one afternoon in December in a midtown conference room. Obama was in town to deliver a speech at a charity dinner for children in poverty at the Mandarin Oriental—but also to pursue another, less high-minded, but more momentous, objective: to begin the process of attempting to pick Hillary Clinton’s pocket.
The conference room belonged to George Soros, the billionaire bête noire of the right. After talking to Soros for an hour about his prospective bid for the White House, Obama walked down the hall and found assembled a dozen of the city’s heaviest-hitting Democratic fund-raisers: investment banker Hassan Nemazee, Wall Street power Blair Effron, private-equity hotshot Mark Gallogly, hedge-fund manager Orin Kramer. Most had been big-time John Kerry backers in 2004. Most had a connection to the Clintons. All were officially uncommitted for 2008.
Comparatively speaking, Wolf, now the CEO of UBS Americas, was a buck-raking neophyte. But his prodigious recent efforts (first for Kerry, then for House and Senate Democrats in 2006) had established him as a rising star in the fund-raising firmament. Until a few weeks earlier, the presidential horse he’d planned to ride in 2008 was former Virginia governor Mark Warner. But with Warner’s decision to forgo the race, Wolf was up for grabs—and in the sights of every Democrat in the field.
What Wolf, 45, was looking for was a candidate who could change the tenor of our politics. “I’d like my children to soon see a president give a State of the Union address and have both parties applaud,” he tells me. But Wolf was looking, too, for a campaign where his presence would be “impactful,” for a candidate who would take his calls, listen to his ideas. He wanted to feel the love. And while Wolf refuses to speak ill of Clinton, it’s clear he doubted that, no matter how much dough he raised, he’d ever be feeling it from her.
Wolf was wowed by Obama that afternoon: his straightforwardness, his “bold and impressive” early stance against the Iraq war. He handed Obama his card and said, “I’d like to get to know you more.” Obama phoned the next day. “When we hung up, he said, ‘I’ll call you after the holidays,’ and I’m thinking, Yeah, right, he’s gonna call me,” Wolf says. But call Obama did. The next week, they had dinner in Washington, just the two of them, on the night that George W. Bush gave his speech announcing the surge of additional troops into Iraq. “I felt so honored to be sitting down with him for two hours on an occasion like that,” Wolf recalls, “knowing that he was going off to be interviewed on television later.”
Within ten days, Obama had announced his intention to run and Clinton was officially in. A story in the Times reported that Obama had nailed two A-list New York donors: Soros and Wolf. But though Soros’s backing was a symbolic coup, it’s Wolf who has emerged as Obama’s most copious cash collector in the city so far—hosting two high-dollar cocktail parties, making countless calls, harvesting more than $500,000. As Wolf tells me about the soirées he’s hosted, he reaches into a meticulously organized scrapbook, takes out a photograph of him and Obama grinning madly, and tells me that I can keep it. “The way Barack has taken this nation with his rock-star status,” he says, “it’s very exciting!”
The courtship of Robert Wolf is, of course, part of a larger story: How Obama, from a standing start three months ago, built a fund-raising apparatus as powerful as Clinton’s. How Obama’s people, tapping a national hunger for something new and fresh, along with the unease of many Democrats about Clinton, ginned up more money for use in the primaries than she did. How they kicked her ass on the Internet and tapped twice as many donors overall. How they even held their own against the Clinton machine in New York. How Obama, that is, won the money primary—or, at least, its first installment—and arguably turned himself into the race’s co-front-runner.
New Yorkers have long understood the money primary and its importance in signaling a candidate’s plausibility. In a deep-blue city where the Democratic primary has traditionally taken place too late to matter, the battle for cash is the one contest in which New Yorkers (a certain class of New Yorkers) have been able tangibly to influence the selection of the party’s nominee. As Julius Genachowski, a high-tech player and law-school friend of Obama’s, puts it, “Other states vote; New York invests.”
Yet the context in which the money primary is taking place this year is radically different from before. With some two dozen states, including ours, now planning to hold primaries on February 5, the ability to raise vast quantities of early cash is seen by many operatives as essential—not just to create a perception of strength but to build a viable organization. “I say this all the time: It’s over on February 5,” argues Terry McAuliffe, Clinton’s campaign chairman. “To raise money to compete in Texas, California, Florida, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and Michigan, all on one day—extraordinary!”