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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

One of the defining elements of the 2012 presidential campaign is money. That's true of every presidential election, of course, but it's a little different this year, and here's one reason why: Two dozen wealthy Americans have each put in at least $1 million to this campaign. It's much easier for them to do that kind of thing this year because of court rulings in recent years that have altered campaign finance law.

This morning, we're launching a series to look at some of those seven-figure, even eight-figure donors. NPR's Peter Overby covers the money side of the presidential race. He's in our studios.

Peter, good morning.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. Let's start with who these people are that are able to give a million or more to the campaign, in one way or another.

OVERBY: Well, mostly they're a mix of Wall Street financiers and entrepreneurs. And as we're starting the series, I went to Las Vegas to learn more about one of the biggest donors - a casino magnate, Sheldon Adelson.

INSKEEP: And we should emphasize, his biggest donations here are not directly to a presidential campaign; they're to one of these independent groups that is, in theory, independent of the campaigns.

OVERBY: Absolutely. To a superPAC - that's where these big contributions are going. They couldn't go to the presidential campaigns themselves.

Since January, Adelson has put more than $10 million into the superPAC backing Newt Gingrich. And that money is what has kept the Gingrich campaign alive.

INSKEEP: So this is a guy worth $25 billion. He's got some to spare. He's put some into the presidential campaign. Why is he so interested in Newt Gingrich's campaign?

OVERBY: He sees Gingrich as the guy who can get what he wants - what Adelson wants for Israel. And for Adelson, Israel is a personal cause.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

SHELDON ADELSON: It's a whole long story. It's because of my father, who never came to Israel. And he always wanted to do so. And then when he could do so, he was too old and too sick.

OVERBY: That's Sheldon Adelson in a video for Birthright Israel, a charity that flies thousands of Jewish teenagers and young adults to the Jewish state every year from all over the world. Adelson has given Birthright tens of millions of dollars.

Adelson grew up poor in Dorchester, Massachusetts. His parents were immigrants. His father drove a cab.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPED DEPOSITION)

ADELSON: When I was 12, I bought my first business.

OVERBY: Adelson sold newspapers on the street. He told the story four years ago, in a videotaped court deposition.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPED DEPOSITION)

ADELSON: You know, you hold the newspaper in your hand and say, hey, get your Daily Record. We would yell that out. We would hawk newspapers.

OVERBY: By age 16, he bought his second business, vending machines. And he kept on selling - packages of toiletries, spray cans of windshield de-icer. He ran a tour business and got into venture capital.

And then, early in the personal computer era, he bought the computer expo called Comdex. He held it every year at the Sands, on the Las Vegas Strip.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Meet the JetStore 2000, HP's two-gigabyte DAT drive. It's the starting point...

OVERBY: Comdex took off, so Adelson built a million-square-foot convention center. And there was the new Las Vegas, a place that catered to big conventions all week long, not just the weekend crowd that came in for gambling and the shows.

Donald Snyder is a former gaming industry executive. Now, he's dean of the College of Hotel Administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: NPR mistakenly attributed the following quote to Snyder. The speaker is longtime Las Vegas consultant Sig Rogich.]

SIG ROGICH: I think if you had to single out one individual who brought that kind of component to the city, it would be Sheldon Adelson. He was a transformational figure in Las Vegas history.

OVERBY: And big conventions call for bigger hotels.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Three, two, one. Fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

OVERBY: In 1996, Adelson imploded the Sands and built the Venetian. Now it's part of a complex, with more than 8,000 rooms and more than 150 stores and restaurants. Adelson talked about it on Charlie Rose's TV show in 2006.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CHARLIE ROSE SHOW")

ADELSON: Since 1931, when gaming was first legalized in the state of Nevada, people were very casino-centric. Today, Las Vegas is the fully matured capital of entertainment. Gambling only contributes 31 percent to our bottom line.

OVERBY: It's a model that Adelson has taken to China and Singapore, with enormous profit. Along the way, Adelson has had battles - lots of them. In the Comdex days, he fought the other casino owners. And when he put up the Venetian, he froze out the unions that had represented workers at the old Sands.

ADELSON: D. Taylor is secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union Local in Las Vegas.

D. TAYLOR: Anybody who stands up to him, or stands in his way, he'll try to crush.

OVERBY: The union held demonstrations outside at the Venetian. Adelson claimed this was his sidewalk, not a public place for free speech, because he had replaced the city sidewalk. Adelson took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which brushed off his appeal.

In Las Vegas, though, Adelson is known as much for his philanthropy as he is for his casinos. He and his wife, Miriam, a doctor, support a school; a hospice; a medical research foundation; and a long list of other organizations stretching from his old hometown, Dorchester, to Las Vegas to Jerusalem.

Rabbi Shea Harlig is director of Chabad of Southern Nevada, an ultra-orthodox Jewish community center largely financed by the Adelsons. Harlig says the restrooms are tiled with marble left over from the Venetian. During an interview, Harlig reached for a pushkah, a small box with a coin slot on the top, and said Adelson once recalled the pushka on the dining table when he was a child.

RABBI SHEA HARLIG: I believe he asked his dad, what is that for? So he said that we give a little - couple of cents every day, every week, to help the poor. And Sheldon told his dad, but we're poor. He says, but there's people out there who are poorer than us.

OVERBY: Harlig and others say that Adelson may be a tough businessman, but he would give a friend the shirt off his back.

HARLIG: There isn't the arrogance, the aloofness, that you would expect, or that you could see from other people. No, absolutely not. He's very down to earth, approachable.

OVERBY: But there is one thing Adelson won't do, and that's talk about politics. NPR sought to interview him on all aspects of this story. After several days of negotiations, Adelson declined because we wouldn't take politics off the agenda. Federal records show that since 1999, Adelson and his wife have made disclosed contributions of $21.6 million. Eighty-two percent of it has been for the benefit of Newt Gingrich, who explained their connection to NBC News back in January.

NEWT GINGRICH: He knows I'm very pro-Israel, and that's the central value of his life. I mean, he is very worried that Israel is going to not survive.

OVERBY: This bond goes back to the 1990s, when Gingrich was speaker of the House. Adelson wanted Congress to require that the U.S. embassy in Israel be moved to Jerusalem. Gingrich not only spearheaded the effort, he's campaigning it on it now - as in this speech in Beverly Hills last December.

GINGRICH: As president, on my first day in office, I will issue an executive order directing the U.S. Embassy in Israel to be moved to Jerusalem, as provided for in the legislation I introduced in Congress in 1995.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

OVERBY: And Steve, Adelson has always backed scores of other GOP candidates and party committees. He's not totally focused on Gingrich.

INSKEEP: Just mostly.

OVERBY: Very much mostly. But one example - four years ago, his money fueled a group called Freedom's Watch. Mostly, Freedom's Watch ran attack ads pushing a conservative agenda.

INSKEEP: And has he spent as much with Freedom's Watch as he had with Newt Gingrich?

OVERBY: Well, we don't know because Freedom's Watch was a 501(c)(4) advocacy group, which doesn't disclose its donors. What he said at the beginning was, he was going to put in about $15 million. We don't know if he actually did.

INSKEEP: OK. So whatever that amount is, that doesn't even count toward that total you had earlier of the 21 million, give or take, that he has given in ways that have been disclosed.

OVERBY: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: OK. So what has all that spending meant for the Republican primaries?

OVERBY: Well, the money that he has put into Winning Our Future has kept Gingrich in the race. In January, Gingrich was crawling out of Iowa after being attacked by the Romney - pro-Romney superPAC. The Adelson money arrived in time for the South Carolina primary in mid-January. They ran fierce attack ads against Romney. Gingrich won that primary. And that has kept Gingrich alive since then. More Adelson money has come in, and it appears that the millions of dollars that Adelson has put into the pro-Gingrich superPAC has molded this GOP contest into the three-way affair that we have today.

INSKEEP: Peter, thanks very much.

OVERBY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR power, money and influence correspondent Peter Overby, launching our occasional series on wealthy donors in the presidential race. We want to mention that you can follow the campaign, and all the news, right here at MORNING EDITION and also online. This program and this network are on Facebook and Twitter. You can follow us @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep. David Greene is on Twitter as well @NPRGreene. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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