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Money Chooses Sides

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John Edwards at a rally at a YWCA in Berkeley, California, in March.  

Thus the lunatic pace and scale of the campaign now unfolding: a race that seems hopped up on steroids and speed simultaneously. With all three top-tier Democratic candidates having rejected federal spending limits for the primaries, experts reckon the race overall may consume over $1 billion, in excess of the GDP of more than a few small countries. On the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are on the air with advertising (nine months before the first ballots are cast, for heaven’s sake). And Democrats are turning out in thousands-strong crowds for Obama, Clinton, and John Edwards—portending a campaign of mind-boggling ferocity and unpredictability.

This sooner-bigger-faster dynamic was supposed to be Clinton’s friend. With her purportedly unmatchable capacity to raise stratospheric sums, she seemed to be on an inexorable march to the nomination. But with Obama’s show of fund-raising strength—and Edwards’s, too—that scenario has flown out the window. “The air of inevitability is gone,” says a mega-fund-raiser for Clinton in New York. “Not everyone in the campaign believed this before, but we’ve got a race on our hands.”

The putative Clinton juggernaut was launched on February 6, with a dinner at her house in Washington. In attendance were 70 of Clinton’s top-shelf fund-raisers from around the country, including New York financiers Alan Patricof and Steve Rattner. The following day, more than a hundred so-called Hillraisers—donors pledged to pulling in at least $25,000 each—filed into the Hyatt Regency for briefings by Clinton’s senior strategists, who offered presentations designed to reinforce her status as the unequivocal, eminently electable, Democratic front-runner.

For weeks already, the Clinton finance team had been working to lock up as many premier bundlers—people proficient at accumulating piles of other people’s checks—as possible. Nowhere was the effort more avid than in New York, especially when it came to bundlers flirting with Obama. In short order, the campaign landed Nemazee and Effron, along with PR executive Robert Zimmerman, who’d raised money for Bill Clinton and Al Gore but was keeping his mind open about 2008. “The Obama outreach was sophisticated, cleverly orchestrated; I met with him and was impressed,” says Zimmerman. “But it wasn’t a hard call. Hillary has the experience and knows how to beat the Republicans, and I can’t stress enough how important that is.”

Other Clinton fund-raisers, however, rendered their decision more on the basis of personal cost-benefit analyses. “I’ll probably be a chicken and go with Hillary,” one confided months ago. “Everybody thinks I’m going to. It’s easy to explain. I have a long relationship with her, I do like and respect her, I’d be happy if she won. So I can support her, frankly, without pissing off Barack or anyone else. But if I support Barack, I’d piss off a bunch of other folks—and who needs that?”

The Clinton rollout amounted to a show of overwhelming force, the fund-raising equivalent of shock and awe. The list of boldface names behind her was endless: Roger Altman, Fred Hochberg, Stanley Shuman, Carl Spielvogel. Though Clinton proclaimed that she hoped to raise $15 million in the first quarter and $75 million by the end of the year, both record-breaking goals, the consensus in political circles was that these were plainly lowball numbers. Reports in the press stated that the campaign was calling on its upper-echelon bundlers to reap at least $250,000 and as much as $1 million each. One such bundler, New York supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis, boasted to the Web magazine the Politico, “She’s going to raise more money than all the other candidates put together.”

To a great degree, presidential fund-raising is an expectations game: Set them low, then blow them away. But, curiously, the Clinton campaign seemed to be lifting the bar rather than depressing it. “There are a lot of people who give to who they think is going to win; they want to be on the winning team so they can be an ambassador or who the hell knows what,” observes a Clinton bundler. “Adopting a we’re-gonna-crush-everyone approach was a way to attract as many of those people as possible.”

Yet alongside the aura of invincibility, the Clinton team projected something else: a tacit message that it was time for big-dollar Democrats to choose between Obama and Hillary. On the bus or off the bus. No hedging allowed. And apostates would pay a price. For some in the party, the tactic struck a nerve. “It’s almost like a shakedown—you’re with us or you’re not,” Jim Neal, a North Carolina investment banker who was on an early conference call with McAuliffe, told the Times. “I find the squeeze, this early, to be quite vulgar … It’s a bullying tactic.”


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