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Money Chooses Sides

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I mention that I’d been in Chicago the previous day to visit Obama headquarters and that his people had been fairly gloating over a particular statistic: that the database of Clinton donors from her last Senate race contains 250,000 names, yet the campaign had received just 50,000 contributions this quarter—a pretty meager conversion rate. “First of all, that’s direct mail,” McAuliffe says. “We did only three mailings this quarter, and the response we got back from people is that it’s too early. It’s just timing. They’ll all be there by the end of ’07—those 250,000 donors will be back.”

McAuliffe’s confidence (overconfidence?) strikes me as a less extreme version of some of the wild-eyed claims made by the campaign’s bundlers two months earlier. I ask Mantz, who’s behind his desk, what he thought when he heard one of his fund-raisers say that Clinton would raise as much as the others put together.

“I love that guy,” Mantz deadpans. “Seriously, what I thought was, How you think this is helpful, I’m not quite sure.

There’ve been mild complaints by some Clinton bundlers that Hillary personally didn’t do enough events or make enough phone calls in the first quarter; that she relied too heavily on her surrogates; that, in short, she was complacent. McAuliffe and Mantz allow that Clinton wasn’t as active as Obama. But they argue she was busy attending to her duties in the Senate, wangling endorsements—important work. “And yet she raised more money this quarter than any candidate in history; I’m almost embarrassed to be having this conversation with you!” McAuliffe says. “We were able to do what we wanted to based on the time she gave us. And in the second quarter, she’s probably got double the events coming up, a lot more small-donor ones across the country.”

Even in New York, Patricof tells me later, Clinton still has plenty of upside potential. “New York’s not tapped out for us at all. There’s a natural inclination at the beginning to go to your first tier. Now there’s going to be greater outreach to new constituencies, new communities, ethnic groups. There are people on my list I still haven’t called yet. And I plan to get on the phone with them very, very soon.”

That Clinton will knock the cover off the ball in the second quarter is a lead-pipe certainty. For all the ambivalence about her in some quarters, in others there’s adulation—and Clinton is disciplined and relentless enough to track down every fan. And McAuliffe and Mantz are right to say that her first-quarter showing was stellar. Mismanaged expectations aside, the real story of the money primary so far isn’t that Hillary underperformed. She did not. The real story is about how Obama killed—and what it means for his candidacy and the race ahead.

David Axelrod has an answer at the ready, which isn’t surprising, since being on-message comes as naturally for him as breathing. At 52, Axelrod is among the best and most storied consultants in the business; his résumé lists stints with four of the Democratic presidential candidates this year (Obama, Clinton, Edwards, Chris Dodd) as well as Chicago mayor Richard Daley and Illinois congressman Rahm Emanuel. With a caterpillar mustache and a comb-over, he’s unfashionable to a fault; today, in his offices in Chicago, he’s wearing a red shirt and green corduroys, looking altogether too Christmassy for the first week of April.

“The most gratifying thing about our fund-raising success isn’t the bottom line,” Axelrod says, “but the number of people who have contributed and the number who are small contributors. The people we’re targeting are new to this; they’re not constrained by old loyalties. There’s a lot of energy in that world, and it gives us enormous potential to grow.” When I ask if he’s implying a contrast to Clintonworld, Axelrod offers up a pointed aperçu: “There’s a difference between grabbing low-hanging fruit and planting trees.”

Obama’s finance people know that historically the second and third quarters have seen a falloff in contributions. But whatever happens next on the money front, the political implications of Obama’s first quarter are already set in stone. The central question about Obama is whether, for all his charisma and star power, he may simply be a flash in the pan. And that question remains largely unanswered. He has yet to demonstrate anything approaching depth on any area of policy. He has yet to articulate a compelling vision of America’s place in the world at a time of clear and present peril. For many people, even those inclined to favor him, he remains something of a cipher. And he has yet to be tested under fire or to prove that he has the fortitude required to withstand the rigors of a presidential campaign—which Clinton has been and does in spades. But Obama’s performance in the money primary does demonstrate that he can build an organization, in a breathtakingly short time, that can go toe-to-toe with hers. And that is no small thing. “As someone new to the presidential process, there was a question of, ‘Can he hack it?’” says Axelrod. “That question has been answered.”


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