Deep Pockets Are Key to White House Run

Members of The Group, a network of New Jersey political fundraisers.

Michael Kempner (from left), Meryl Frank and Zenon Christodoulou are members of The Group, a network of political fundraisers in New Jersey. Peter Overby, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Overby, NPR

The after-dinner speech at an event that costs contributors $100 — or $1,000 or more — is the most visible part of a presidential candidate's fundraising operation.

But the actual business of rounding up money happens far away from the microphones.

The 2008 presidential race is expected to be the most expensive yet. It's believed that candidates will need to raise $100 million by December to be serious contenders in 2008.

The race for money is accelerated because officials moved up the primary calendar. And some of the biggest states — including California, Florida, Michigan and Illinois — are considering holding their primaries in early February.

Because of that, the party nominees could be chosen less than a year from now — eight months before Election Day.

Fundraising relies in part on direct mail and Internet appeals. But most of the dollars will come through contributions gathered — or "bundled" — by movers and shakers who work networks of their friends and business acquaintances.

An example of how such a network operates can be found in New Jersey, where a quiet but influential group of Democrats is ready to raise money for a presidential candidate –- they just haven't decided which one yet. Members simply call themselves "The Group." Some mobilize voters. But mainly, The Group's influence is in its ability to raise money.

Members started out interested in former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner. A reception for Warner in North Jersey last June grossed $250,000.

Warner decided not to run, but The Group decided to hang together. Soon, other Democratic candidates came calling. Now a real courtship is going on.

One member of the group is Michael Kempner, the president of a PR firm that hosted the Warner reception. He says The Group has met with potential candidates, such Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware and former Sen. John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee.

"We have had private lunches, private dinners, in some cases lunches and dinners, been to their homes," he said.

Nobody in the group is a political novice. But Kempner said everyone is a bit surprised by the entrée the candidates are giving.

"They've been welcoming and very generous with their time, and frankly, very grateful," he said.

Candidates are grateful because The Group and others in New Jersey can tap into a lot of money. The Garden State gave more than $15 million to presidential candidates for the 2004 election.

Members in The Group can tap donors they know from business or golfing –- even acquaintances.

"The candidates love to leak to the press which fundraiser they just signed up, because there is no more important badge of honor right now than being able to attract some of the most important finance people in the country," Kempner said.

For all the money this group is poised to raise, none of those involved claims to be in that category — especially not Meryl Frank. She's the mayor of Highland Park, a small commuter town. She has ties to different ethnic and cultural communities, and turns to them for votes and small-dollar donations —the $50 variety.

That makes her different from the men in The Group.

"My friends have Rolodexes they can access with people who will give enormous sums of money," Frank said. "But I raise money in small donations, and that means I have to go out and inspire people. So that means I've got to believe."

So when The Group sits down with a candidate, Frank often starts things off.

"The men in my group say, 'Meryl, you ask first.' And my question is the same for all of them, and that is: 'You're in New Jersey now. Nobody believes in anything; they see politicians indicted every other week. We're asking people to believe in you. You need to inspire us. You need to tell us who you are, what's your story, what do you care about.'"

She says this never gets a quick answer. And occasionally, a candidate simply flubs it.

Zenon Christodoulou, the president of the Greek-American Chamber of Commerce, also belongs to The Group. He owns a printing and design business, as well as a diner.

Christodoulou said his people already want to know what's going on in the presidential race.

"I get no less than 10 calls a day," he said. "I mean, people call every day, saying, 'Who're we going with? What're we doing?'"

The calls come from business associates and from Christodoulou's acquaintances, folks who trust his opinion.

The Group could settle on a candidate to back as early as this week.

Over on the Republican side, fundraisers are following a similar strategy. Jack Oliver was chief fundraiser for the 2000 Bush campaign. He also helped run the finance operation for 2004. He says the key to fundraising is to provide entry points for donors at all levels.

"Encourage them, tell them what's going on in the campaign, make sure they know what's happening, communicate to them about debates, polling," Oliver said. "People want to be involved — like following a sports team."

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