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Crashing the Party

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Gore has built a formidable New York money machine, orchestrated by a highly ambitious team of Wall Street wizards. Peter Knight, the Washington lawyer-lobbyist who is one of Gore's closest friends, came to New York eighteen months ago and organized a meeting of recruits at the Sky Club. To harness the natural competitiveness of New York's leading moneymen, the campaign has developed an elaborate scorekeeping mechanism to make sure fund-raisers get credit for each check raised, as if amassing frequent-flier mileage redeemable for such future rewards as an ambassadorship or a White House dinner. "We keep a list, we know who's No. 1," says a prominent Gore-campaign insider. "People do compete against each other, and we encourage that."

The area's "team leaders," nearly all veterans of past Clinton-Gore campaigns, are well-known names from the business pages: venture capitalist Alan Patricof, Lazard Frères deputy chief executive Steven Rattner, Loews Hotels president Jonathan Tisch, Paul Beirne of Sanford C. Bernstein & Company, ICG Communications chief executive J. Shelby Bryan, Allen & Company's Stan Shuman, and hedge-fund manager Orin Kramer. While there are women involved in the Gore effort, the widespread perception is that this clique of guys is running the show.

The Bradley campaign, on the other hand, has proved adept at recruiting political newcomers like designer Tommy Hilfiger, who had never previously backed a candidate when he hosted a June fund-raiser for Bradley at his Greenwich home, and Spike Lee, who is planning a Bradley fund-raiser at his New York townhouse later this year. (Rallying novices, however, has its downside: $50,000 worth of checks received by the Bradley camp to date have either bounced or been returned for violating campaign laws.)

Ironically, the current fund-raising fandango is really a battle over chump change: Presidential candidates can accept only $1,000 per person for primaries. The last time Democrats were being pressured to write such small checks for a national campaign was in 1992, when cell phones were still a novelty. In recent years, to the dismay of campaign reformers, the national Democratic and Republican parties have been fixated on hitting up wealthy donors for "soft money," checks that can run to hundreds of thousands of dollars for so-called issue ads that run once the party nominee is chosen. "It's a lot easier to ask one person for $50,000 than 50 people for $1,000," says Gore supporter Alan Patricof. "People used to giving large sums don't think $1,000 is meaningful."

At such small increments, it takes enough phone calls to blow the circuits on a speed-dialer to build a $33.5 million war chest, the maximum that the law allows candidates like Gore and Bradley, who accept federal matching funds, to spend. But the checks do add up, and being able to bring in $100,000 can make you very popular with the candidate. "The role of the fund-raiser has replaced the role of the donor at the top of the food chain," says Fred Wertheimer, director of the campaign-reform group Democracy 21. "People know that this is the way to go if you're interested in power, influence over government decisions, or government positions."

Of course, it would be crude -- and borderline illegal -- to discuss such quids pro quo in public. But that doesn't mean people don't think about it constantly. Thanks to Gore's front-runner status, there's fierce behind-the-scenes jockeying among donors for position. Every time the vice-president comes to New York, event planners are deluged with calls from people demanding a good table or else. "I get calls the next day, no matter what," says one weary ego-wrangler, adding that the most difficult people to deal with are the insecure ones near the bottom of the campaign-finance food chain.


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