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Gentlemen, Start Your Checkbooks

For Democrats, the race for the White House starts in posh Manhattan townhouses and co-ops, as New York’s money class takes the measure of the candidates and places its bets. Whose head was turned by Clark? Who’s sticking with Dean? Herewith, a scorecard.

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Dean Machine: Howard Dean with Whoppi Goldberg and singer Gloria Gaynot at a fund-raiser at the Avalon nightclub on September 20.  

It’s unheard of for people waving their wallets to be turned away from a political fund-raiser, but that was the chaotic scene outside psychologist Gail Furman’s Greenwich Village townhouse on a recent Monday night, as crowds of well-dressed thirtyish lawyers and Wall Streeters tried to talk their way in to see Wesley Clark.

Inside, nearly 400 people were jammed into the living room, perched on a stairway, hanging out second-floor windows. At 9:30 p.m., the retired four-star general made a triumphant, rock-star entrance via a back garden. The townhouse erupted in screams and chants of “We want Clark!” “You’ve got him,” Clark hollered back, adding, “Who says there’s no draft in America today?”

This was the cheap-seat event of Clark’s evening, a minimum $50 donation versus the $1,000-to-$2,000 price tag at two earlier, exclusive house parties. Introduced by financier Alan Patricof, Clark clambered onto a makeshift podium, high on the adrenaline of campaign fever, and began by dismissing the critical press he’s received. “As the political reporters have said, ‘General, you ain’t got much of a campaign,’ ” declared Clark. “I said, ‘You’re right, I don’t have a campaign, I have a movement!’ ” The audience roared.

Emphasizing his 34 years in the military, Clark thundered his opposition to the war (“How dare the leaders of this administration send our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters to fight in Iraq in a cause that wasn’t necessary”), joked when interrupted by the ringing of a cell phone (“If that’s President Putin calling, tell him I’ll be right there”), and stressed his belief in the United Nations (“We need our allies; I happen to like bratwurst and French wine”). Then he rallied his new troops with a call to wield their most potent weapon: “We want you to get your friends to give . . . You’re voting with your checkbook, and with politics, that’s important.”

Small wonder that Clark has spent more time in New York City since announcing his candidacy than in Iowa or New Hampshire—there’s more money per square mile in these greed-locked streets than anywhere else in the country. Sure, the Spielberg-Streisand outpost of L.A. boasts many deep-pocketed Democrats, but in less time than it takes to drive from Malibu to Studio City, Clark dropped by three homes here and scooped up more than $300,000—not bad for a night’s work.

With the Democratic race accelerating, the candidates have been hustling for cash here with the intensity of door-to-door insurance salesmen trying to reach their quota to win a color TV. “Everybody’s tripping over each other,” says Kati Marton, the author of a book about presidential marriages and wife of Democratic secretary-of-State-in-waiting Richard Holbrooke; she was spotted at a breakfast for John Kerry at the Grand Hyatt.

Indeed, even as Clark was continuing his fund-raising fandango for a second day with a top-dollar lunch at Hillary pal Jill Iscol’s Fifth Avenue apartment, native son Howard Dean was sweeping into town for a four-event marathon, ending that Tuesday with a late-night $250 dessert reception for an SRO crowd at Opia. The exuberant Dean went on so long that an aide, mindful of his upcoming 5:30 a.m. wake-up call for Good Morning America, enlisted the candidate’s mother to pry him away. (“Howard,” Andree Dean called out in a no-nonsense tone. “Your mother wants you. It’s time to go.”) Stopping on the 57th Street sidewalk moments later, Dean insisted to me that he’s not worried that Clark will siphon away money. “Clark is taking institutional support away from the other candidates; I have a different base of supporters,” said Dean, the fund-raising front-runner. He raised an astonishing $14.8 million in the just-ended third quarter, far outstripping next-in-line Kerry, who brought in an estimated $4.5 million to $5 million; Lieberman, aiming for $4 million; Edwards, an estimated $2.5 million to $3 million; and Clark, expected to bring in more than $2 million when final numbers are posted October 15.

Given the sheer volume of checks written in one week, it’s hard to believe there’s a recession in New York. The night after Dean’s event, it was Florida senator Bob Graham’s turn to shake the money tree down on the Bowery, that area long notorious for down-and-out denizens demanding handouts. Even though he’s lagging in the polls and there are rumors that he might drop out, this courtly silver-haired smooth-talker managed to reel in 250 well-heeled backers who paid up to $2,000 to sip apple martinis and eat roast chicken at Capitale, the handsome, ornate converted Bowery Savings Bank. There were murmurs in the pragmatic crowd about what a great vice-presidential candidate he would be, but Graham put on an upbeat face as he worked the tables. “You know what Willie Sutton said when he was asked, ‘Why do you rob banks?’ ” quipped Graham. “He said, ‘That’s where the money is.’ And that’s why people come to New York.”

Not since 1976, when ten Democrats vied for the presidential nomination, has there been such a crowded field. For those wealthy New York contributors with fond memories of nights spent in the Lincoln Bedroom during the Clinton years, choosing a candidate to back this time around involves a complicated series of calculations. Four years ago, the New York Democratic-money primary resembled a Hatfields-versus-McCoys showdown between institutional party loyalists, fantasizing about jobs in an Al Gore administration, and insurgent true-believer backers of Bill Bradley.

But this fall, the emotions and loyalties are even more fractured, pitting friends against each other and even dividing families. Clark’s guides to New York’s moneyed rooms are Alan and Susan Patricof, who have raised millions for Democrats and were early backers of the Clintons but who don’t see eye-to-eye with their own children on this race. Investment-banker son Jonathan, 30, raised a good chunk of change at his Soho loft this summer for John Kerry, while his brother Mark, 39, president of David Rockwell’s architectural firm, organized a lunch for Howard Dean. “We decided to go in different ways,” says Jon, explaining that he hasn’t tried to lobby his brother. “You can’t guide someone.” His father adds, “Everyone in the family has been quite restrained. Nobody’s attacked each other yet.” Jokes Susan, “Our youngest son, Jamie, hasn’t chosen anyone, and we hope we can get him on our side for Clark.”

Meanwhile, Jane Rosenthal, who runs Tribeca Films (and is married to Susan’s brother, Craig Hatkoff), also dabbles in Democratic politics and recently gave a meet-and-greet event, with co-host Whoopi Goldberg, for Dick Gephardt. “I’m backing whoever can win,” says Rosenthal, adding that she’s given money to Gephardt, Kerry, and Clark. “Our family is all over the place, and we have e-mail debates that are hilarious. We all show up at each other’s events. Jon came to my Gephardt event.”

The divisions in the Patricof clan mirror those in the Manhattan Democratic-money tribe—which is not much bigger. There are roughly 300 people in New York who are each capable of raising $100,000. The big money raisers know each other from past campaigns and keep in touch on the same cocktail-party and charity circuit. The small-world nature of Democratic politics here is epitomized by the fact that three key supporters of rival candidates—Roy Furman (Dean), Laura Ross (Senator John Edwards), and Hassan Nemazee (Kerry)—all have apartments in the same building, 770 Park Avenue, and have held events there. And Jill Straus, who co-runs Edwards’s New York fund-raising office, crows about her incursion into enemy territory: “One of our most successful events for Edwards was in Howard Dean’s mother’s building on Park Avenue.”

After the disastrous 2000 election followed by the midterm debacle for Democrats last November, the city’s major fund-raisers have been brainstorming about how to beat Bush and how best to make their financial muscle count.

During the past year, four Manhattan Democratic moneymen set themselves up as power brokers, each organizing informal groups to vet the candidates: Patricof (whose group included Gail Furman and Sarah and Victor Kovner); Philip Murphy, a Goldman Sachs managing director; Paul Beirne, a principal with Bernstein Investment Research and Management; and attorney Melvyn Weiss (whose group includes Carl Spielvogel). Their breakfasts and dinners weren’t fund-raisers but rather free meet-and-greets, which most of the major candidates dutifully attended in hopes of scoring supporters. “I organized this group about eight months ago because I didn’t want to throw money away,” says Weiss, explaining that he’d hoped that he and his friends would all agree to back one candidate, anointing an early front-runner and avoiding an expensive Democratic-primary fight. “When you have primaries, the money is just wasted. There were 25 of us, although some have fallen by the wayside or have now endorsed a candidate,” says Weiss, who recently hosted Clark and admits that his group remains divided. “We may not be able to come to a consensus.”

To put it mildly. Each candidate has committed partisan supporters, such as John Catsimatidis, the CEO of Red Apple supermarkets, who will happily talk your ear off about Kerry’s merits: “He has what it takes to defeat George Bush—he’s not too far to the right, not too far to the left, and he’s a war hero.” Investment banker Roy Furman is wild about Dean: “He’s pragmatic and smart, and people love what they hear.” The Kovners have fallen for Clark’s epaulets; as Victor says, “With his outstanding record of service and sacrifice for his country and knowledge of foreign policy, I think General Clark would be the strongest candidate.” Park Avenue fund-raiser Laura Ross is talking up John Edwards; rap-music mogul Russell Simmons is singing Al Sharpton’s praises: “He’s a voice for change. I’m interested in hearing him inspire all Americans to be more compassionate to poor people.” Lynn Forester de Rothschild is backing son-of-a-milkman Dick Gephardt: “Dick can beat Bush on foreign policy, and he’s a human being people can relate to.”

But most of the money tribe isn’t playing favorites yet. Make the rounds of presidential fund-raisers, and the same faces appear: Rabbi Solomon Horowitz turned up at both the Clark and Dean events, opining afterward, “Dean talked more about the issues, and he’s down-to-earth. I like that he talked to everybody. Clark was too high-and-mighty.” Writer Sarah Crichton (who ghosted Joe and Hadassah Lieberman’s book) came to a Kerry breakfast as a guest of a friend and four days later joined her mother at Dean’s Opia event, saying with a smile, “I’m curious.” Mom Judith Crichton, confiding that she had donated $100 to the draft-Clark movement, enthused after hearing Dean, “He’s the best speaker I’ve heard since Adlai Stevenson.” Philanthropist Anne Hess is on the circuit because she wants to make a first-person judgment. “I’m trying to meet as many of them as possible, and sometimes it costs me, sometimes it doesn’t,” says Hess, who’s attended events for Kerry, Dean, and Edwards. “I want to hear them answer questions.” And her choice? “At the moment, I’m underwhelmed by them all.”

It would be logical to think that people who take the more time-consuming and significant step of putting their names on invites and hosting fund-raisers have committed their hearts to a sole candidate, but even that’s often not the case. With four senators in the race, New York’s political junkies have preexisting relationships with several candidates and conflicted loyalties. “It’s been a tricky thing for me,” says Adam Epstein, a producer of Hairspray who organized a $130,000 theater-and-drinks event for Edwards earlier this year, but then switched to longtime family friend Graham, explaining, “I worked for him as an intern, and I love him.” Patricia Duff co-hosted a Dean fund-raiser earlier this year but later showed up for a $100-a-person Kerry lunch at the Yale Club. “I’ve known Kerry for so long that I feel guilty for not backing him all the way,” she said. “But I find Dean the real leader in this group. And he’s really created a revolution in the way he’s been able to bring in so many small donors.” Her ex-husband, Revlon mogul Ron Perelman, also has divided allegiances: He opened his townhouse to Kerry and his supporters in June, raising more than $60,000, but has also promised to help Joe Lieberman. An aide explains, “Ron has two friends in this race.”


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