Political Junkie: Presidential Candidate Cash

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Mara Liasson talks about campaign dollars raised by the 2008 presidential candidates.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

But now it's Wednesday, and that means it's time for the Political Junkie.

President RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Ich bin ein Berliner.

Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Democrat, Texas): Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.

Mr. HOWARD DEAN (Chairman, Democratic National Committee): Aagh!

CONAN: Ken Rudin is on vacation this week. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has graciously agreed to sit in with us here in Studio 3a. Mara, nice of you to come in.

MARA LIASSON: Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And lots of political news to catch up on this week. Money is always a big factor in any presidential campaign. The results of the money primary are in, at least the first three months of it. There's the fallout over speaker Pelosi's visit to Syria and the struggle between the administration and congress on the funding of the war and the fate of the attorney general.

More on that in a moment, but first, if you have questions about any of these matters or other events of this week in politics, our number: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation online at our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation.

And Mara, in terms of the money, surprises in both parties. But the big news today is that Senator Barack Obama raised $25 million for his presidential campaign in just three months, a mere million behind Senator Hillary Clinton. This is spectacular, no?

LIASSON: Yes, it's absolutely spectacular - 23.5 of his $25 million is for the primary. He says he raised it from 100,000 donors, and 90 percent of it was in donations under a hundred dollars. And the reason why that is so important is not only did he raised a tremendous amount of money - very close to Senator Clinton - but he raised it from what we assume are people who have never been involved in politics before.

The campaign couldn't give us an actual number of people who had never given before, but they're people who gave in small amounts, which means they have a long way to go before they are quote, "maxed out," before they get to the limit that they're allowed to give under the law, which means he can go back to these people again and again and again.

And so he has a very big pool to draw from. He perhaps has brought new people into the process. And what the Obama campaign says is that while Mrs. Clinton clearly has an extremely formidable fundraising network and the best fundraiser in American on her said - Bill Clinton - what they say is that she has an old and established network that is much closer to being maxed out. In other words, until Mrs. Clinton tells us how much of her $26 million was for the primary or for the general, that will give us a clue as to how much of it was from people who can no longer give her any more.

So yes, very big news. It means he's not a flash in the pan. He's not just a political phenomenon. He is somehow who can be - because he now has the resources - a very, very serious contender to Senator Clinton.

CONAN: Also, 6.9 million of that in from the Internet.

LIASSON: Yes.

CONAN: Yeah. That's interesting, too. What this means, it seems, if Senator Clinton hoped that by posting those first numbers she could blow everybody away and runaway and hide, that's not going to happen.

LIASSON: Yes. She certainly has been positioning herself as the inevitable candidate. But to the Clinton campaign's credit - part of this was spin - they were highballing Obama all along saying that he was going to come in with a very big number and lowballing themselves. That's what people do in advance of the quarterly reports.

But the fact is that she has been trying to lock this up to make herself look inevitable. That hasn't happened. She is a very formidable candidate. She still should be considered the frontrunner, but I would say very, very close on her heels now is Senator Obama.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail question from Dwight in Palo Alto, California.

Some months ago, Hilary Clinton was reported to have told the party's big hitters that if they gave to her, they can't give to other candidates. Have those big hitters followed this edict?

LIASSON: Well, some of them have, and some of them like David Geffen, you know, have broken with her. And other ones have said…

CONAN: Rather dramatically. Yes.

LIASSON: Yes, and other ones have said, fine, well then, return my money. People like Steven Spielberg have given to both candidates. I think that there is this suggestion that there's a certain amount of Clinton donor fatigue out there because they have given to the Clintons so many times for so many elections. And although there is tremendous allegiance to her and her husband, that it might be difficult for her to pull something like that off.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

But the big news from the Obama campaign is his potential to have brought new people into the process, not just in terms of building the movement that he wants to, but also in terms of a donor base.

CONAN: Well, let's run quickly through some of the fundraising totals for some of the other Democratic candidates, and then we'll get to the Republicans. John Edwards, $14 million; Governor Richardson, $6 million; Senator Dodd, $4 million plus $5 from his Senate campaign, for a total of $9; and Senator Joe Biden, a total of $4 million, half from his senatorial campaign. What does that mean put together?

LIASSON: Well, what I would say, the only one worth talking about in terms of money is John Edwards. I think that you can't count him out. Of course, he now trails by quite a bit Obama and Clinton, but he did raise $14 million. He's had a little bump in the polls recently, partially because of all the tremendous publicity that he's been getting from his wife's cancer, but he is clearly the number three.

He is in the second tier. If you have Obama and Clinton in the first tier, he is the second tier, and the rest of them are other.

CONAN: Now on the Republican side, I think people were startled to see an enormous fundraising effort on behalf of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, $23 million.

LIASSON: Yeah, I think that actually the biggest news on the Republican side was how poorly John McCain did, but yes, Mitt Romney did very well. He won the money race on the Republican side. He raised $23 million. A lot of it came from Mormon donors in the states in the West, which are not key Republican primary states necessarily. But again, just as with Obama, it means that Mitt Romney, who seems to have been stuck at single digits in the polls, now has the resources to perhaps, you know, buy himself the television time, just generate the kind of interest that a fundraising feat like this does to make himself into a more formidable candidate.

To me, still the big story was John McCain. He only brought in about $12 million. He once was the frontrunner. He lost that status a while ago, when Rudy Giuliani bested him in the polls. But he has now gone back and is fine-tuning or re-jiggering his fundraising operation.

And it's kind of interesting because both John McCain and Hillary Clinton adopted the model for fundraising that was invented by George Bush. Where you take people and you designate them with some name like pioneer or ranger the way Bush did, or Hillary has called them hill-raisers, and you task them with raising - they get a certain status as fundraisers if they raise $100,000 or $200,000, which was the George Bush max.

Hillary has gone way farther than that and said that to be a hill-raiser, you have to raise or bundle, put together, $1 million. That is a tremendous amount of money. Now John McCain, although he adopted of the Bush fundraising apparatus and the operatives and the fundraisers, didn't really put that incentive system into place. Now his campaign says they are going to do that, and they're going to hold a lot more big money events. People give money at parties, it seems, and he's going to be holding a lot of them.

CONAN: His most recent campaign event, of course, was in Baghdad.

LIASSON: Yes, right, not a fundraiser.

CONAN: Nevertheless, he got a lot of airtime.

LIASSON: Yes.

CONAN: And not necessarily positive results.

LIASSON: No.

CONAN: He was speaking about how well things were going in Iraq. See, I can walk around this market with 100 armed soldiers, attack helicopters overhead and snipers on the rooftops.

LIASSON: Right. I think Iraq is just the cross for John McCain to bear. I mean, I think he truly believes all along that there should have been more troops there. He believes in the surge. He possibly believes the surge doesn't even have enough troops. But the problem, I think, with this trip was just that his view of - his version of reality there was contradicted the very next day when reporters swarmed back into that same market to talk to people and were told that they didn't feel nearly as safe as John McCain and some of the other congressional delegates said that they were.

CONAN: We should point out Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, $15 million.

LIASSON: Yes, and that's a very - and that also is very impressive and very important. On the Republican side there is no frontrunner right now, I would argue. John McCain used to be, but he was knocked off his perch. Giuliani certainly has been in the polls, although he's been slipping a bit as he's gotten more scrutiny and as Republican primary voters have learned more about him other than the fact that he was the hero of 9/11. But to raise $15 million in a very short period of time - he's the newest entry in the Republican field - I think is very, very impressive.

So right now you've got three formidable candidates on the Republican side. Nobody is a real frontrunner. And on the Democratic side you've got Hillary as - Mrs. Clinton as the frontrunner and Barack Obama very, very close behind.

CONAN: Interesting results of a field poll in California that was just issued, this just on the Republican side. Rudolph Giuliani, 36 percent; John McCain, 24 percent; Mitt Romney, 7 percent; all the other candidates below 5 percent.

LIASSON: That's not unlike what you would see nationally, I think, in the Republican field.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail question from Mary(ph) in Tonawanda in New York. These are tremendous amounts of money. Is there a formula or usual way candidates spend this money? Are percentages used for media, direct mail, et cetera, or is it simply up the individual candidate and/or the campaign strategist to mete out these funds?

LIASSON: Well, it certainly is up to the campaign to mete out the funds. However, what's going to be very interesting in a couple weeks when we get the full report is we're going to find out how much they've spent, and that will tell you a little bit about how their campaigns are going. You know, what's the burn rate?

In other words, you have to spend a certain amount. If they haven't spent enough, they're just sitting on it and they'll end up like John Kerry at the end of the campaign with $15 million extra, and obviously he should have spent it.

However, they decide how to spend it. It goes on consultants, media, travel. There's all sort of ways to spend money in a campaign. That's why campaigns are so expensive, and that's why they're going to cost a billion dollars this year. But no, there is no designated formula.

CONAN: And this all after campaign finance reform. What happened to that? We were supposed to see…

LIASSON: Well, campaign finance reform, which of course John McCain was the author of the bill, didn't necessarily shrink the sheer amount of money in politics. But it did reform the way money was raised and spent, and the way advertisements were put on television and credited.

So campaign finance reform, if anyone thought it was going to literally get big money out of politics, it certainly wasn't supposed to and didn't.

CONAN: One more question about money, this an e-mail from Keith(ph) in San Rafael, California. Any way to determine if contributors to Clinton or Obama are Republicans? Could Republicans be influencing the Democratic race?

LIASSON: Well I'm not sure if there's a way to determine that. I think generally the categories are by profession. You'll find out how much money came from the oil and gas industry or the trial lawyers, but I don't know if they do it by party affiliation. I've never seen a breakdown that way.

CONAN: All right. We're talking with Mara Liasson, sitting in this week for Ken Rudin as our political junkie. If you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. You can also go to our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And now let's get back to the incredibly contentious argument between Democrats and the White House on funding the war in Iraq. At his news conference yesterday, the president was asked: The Democrats got elected in November, weren't they elected precisely on exactly this question, to end the war in Iraq? Here's the president's answer.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I think the voters in America want Congress to support our troops who are in harm's way. They want money to the troops and they don't want politicians in Washington telling our generals how to fight a war. It's one thing to object to the policy, but it's another thing when you have troops in harm's way not to give them the funds they need.

CONAN: And Democrats immediately came back and said the president's threatening to veto the funds for the troops. He's going against the will of the American people.

LIASSON: Right, except the - yeah, but not by vetoing the funds for troops, by not ending the war, which they say is the will of the American people. The Democrats - no Democrat would say that they ran on cutting off funding for the war, which is the only way Democrats could actually end the war, which is what they say they did run on.

So it's a little bit confusing, but I think that we are at this impasse. Both sides clearly feel they have the politics on their side. The president feels if he frames it as an issue of funding the troops he can win the politics of this, and the Democrats feel they have public opinion on their side. Poll after poll shows that Americans want the war to end.

What's going to happen next is the bill has to be sent to the president's desk, and that means that the House and Senate versions have to be reconciled, and they haven't been yet. But then he will veto it, as he has promised to do, and then there will be some kind of negotiations that will commence. And it's unclear what will happen. There are a number of moving parts in this bill. There are all sorts of new spending, actually, that the Democrats put into the bill to get votes. There's also obviously the deadline, which the president objects to, and there are benchmarks, which are the president's own benchmarks but that the Democrats wrote into the legislation.

So some or all of that might drop out, but I think where this debate goes next is, as time goes on and the supplemental funds are not there, you at some point and we don't know what that point will be, generals will start saying I don't have enough for this or I don't have enough for that, and the White House will try to blame Democrats for leaving our troops high and dry. And we'll see what happens.

But this is going to be a long, contentious fight, and I assume that it will end in some kind of a negotiated compromise.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in. This is Bob. Bob with us from Boulder, Colorado.

BOB (Caller): Yeah, actually I was holding, Neal, to talk about the other issue on campaign financing.

CONAN: That's okay, go ahead.

BOB: Well, my comment was my observation is that it seems like the media just accepts this without - to me, it's startling that all of a sudden a major criteria for political success in this presidential campaign is how much money someone has raised. And it's a little bit like the medium is the message, that we're just talking about it.

I was glad to hear you talk a little bit about campaign finance reform, but all of a sudden, you know, it's a new, accepted criteria. We're talking about a lot of money, and it just strikes me as incredible that we just accept it without skipping a beat, that that's a new criteria for success and one more criteria where no one's talking about the issues.

CONAN: Well…

LIASSON: Well, there's no doubt about it that when you talk about money, you're not talking about the issues. However, it's not a new criteria for success, it's an old criteria for success. You know, if these candidates, if any of these candidates thought they could be successful without raising any money, I'm sure a lot of them wouldn't bother because a lot of politicians hate raising money. But campaigns are extremely expensive, and until this country decides to pass a public financing of elections, which wasn't even contemplated in the last campaign finance reform bill, I don't see how this changes.

BOB: Well, it's changed a little bit in my mind. Clearly, among politicians it was a criteria for success, but now within the general public it reminds me of now when you open up the newspaper on Monday morning, you get a rundown of who was the box office successful movie like we should be rooting for whoever took in the most money. And that didn't exist three years ago, but now it's just a standard feature in all newspapers. And now all of a sudden to the general public and in the media a criteria of raising money is equated with success.

LIASSON: Yeah, on that I think you have a really, really good point. And I'll tell you why, because there are many examples of people who raised a lot of money and haven't been successful. Phil Gramm did that. John Connally is famous for raising $12 million and getting one delegate.

CONAN: Mr. Forbes.

BLOCK: The most expensive - and Steve Forbes. So there are many people who have raised a lot of money and it hasn't led to success. What we don't have any examples of is a candidate who's raised hardly any but still gotten the nomination.

BOB: That's exactly right. Well, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: And thanks, Bob, for the call. We're running short of time. We did not even get to Speaker Pelosi's visit to Syria and the president's criticism of that. We're going to focus a longer time on that. But quickly, Mara, Republicans go to Damascus and the White House says nothing, and the speaker goes to Damascus and the White House denounces it.

LIASSON: Right. The speaker went to Damascus. The White House denounced it. Clearly, she's the leader of the opposition. She has a different opinion about what America's foreign policy should be towards Damascus. As a matter of fact, she went there, she said, to kind of prove that the Bush policy of isolation has not worked. But yeah, clearly the White House doesn't like it when prominent Democrats go around the globe.

CONAN: Mara Liasson, thanks very much for filling in this week for Ken Rudin, who will be back next week, we hope. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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