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Behind the big-ticket political fundraisers

By Ann Gerhart and ,

It doesn’t look all that swanky, the chamber of secrets in the Boca Raton mansion where Mitt Romney spilled about what wasn’t his job — to worry about the 47 percent of people who were, he said, victims and dependents.

The Florida sun is still coming in the window, turning the walls of a small room an even richer yellow. The few people visible in the leaked video of the May 17 private fundraiser — a balding man in gray suit, a woman with an aggressively blond mane — are seated at a table on gold, hardback chairs that are standard mid-range issue from any nice party rental company: perfectly fine, not shabby but not fancy, either.

There is no 18-foot champagne tower, covered up, as at the Tuesday evening fundraiser for President Obama at the 40/40 Club in Manhattan, although the uncorking of wine bottles can be heard. A hundred people paid $40,000 to hang with Obama and fundraiser hosts Beyonce and Jay-Z. A much smaller number paid $50,000 to meet in Boca Raton with Romney and hear him make a joke about how he could beat Obama more easily if his grandparents were Mexican. They laughed heartily.

Those price tags are not much less than what the average American family of four earns in a year. Yes, the donors are very rich people. Why is this what they choose to do with their money? What do they want?

Proximity to power, face time with the candidate, a chance to air their views, strut a little before the other people in the room and to brag plenty once they’ve left, say people who have hosted intimate fundraisers and raised piles of money for both Republicans and Democrats.

Romney knows exactly, and he gives it to them right up front.

“Because the table is small enough and the room is intimate enough, I’d like to spend our time responding to questions you have, listening to advice you might have,” Romney says on the video, released Monday by Mother Jones magazine.

Listening to advice you might have.

Flattery, attentiveness, pandering. A politician has to play to many crowds — the New Hampshire town hall, the VFW guys, the soccer moms. His or her rich donors are just one more audience.

Because the high-dollar, low-head-count fundraiser is closed to the press and held in a private home, it is invisible to the people who will ultimately decide the contest — that would be millions of voters. The unmistakable impression is that rich people get the real deal, the truth that the candidate won’t tell the public.

Fundraisers are closed to press and off-the-record not to protect the candidate from too-frank assessments. The candidate, after all, is presumed to be skilled enough at audience calibration to deliver to his crowd without damaging his campaign. These events are closed to protect the donors, who do not wish to blurt out their deepest fears and aspirations for public consumption, political fundraisers say.

“It’s done not so much for the candidate as much as it is for the guests. You want them to feel relaxed and be able to ask questions without feeling they are on the record,” said Robert Zimmerman, a member of several national finance committees for Democratic presidential campaigns. “Because a candidate is always on the record, especially for president.”

Added another person who has worked for three Democratic presidential candidates and requested anonymity to talk frankly about the details of such events: “By the time [candidates] get to this level, they’re pros. They know how to give the appearance of a frank back-and-forth with the room without going off message.

“If a guy from the garment business wants to ask about trade and how he’s going to be able to get his silk, the candidate knows how to answer that” without deviating from economic policy messages he’s already delivered on the stump.

Sure, they screw up. In 2008, at a fundraiser in Marin County, Calif., Obama revealed his frustration over not consolidating white, working-class support and attributed it to voters who “cling to their guns and religion.” Bill Clinton, campaigning for re-election in 1995, told a room of donors bluntly that he probably had raised their taxes too much. George W. Bush joked to some donors, “Some people call you the elite. I call you my base,” and the Democratic National Committee made an ad of it.

Romney’s problem, suggested two other Democratic fundraisers, is that his remarks struck such a nerve because the audience seemed exactly like Romney’s people.

“If they hadn’t paid $50,000 and he wasn’t running for president, he’d be in the room anyway,” said one bundler for President Obama. “Often, donors want a more complicated relational moment than a materially transactional moment,” said Georgette Mosbacher, a doyenne of donor maintenance. “It’s a social structure as much as it is anything else,” she said. “It’s a club.”

Those who throw fundraisers have to hit a target take, which means they have to put the touch on a couple dozen people they know and ask for a big check. They have to foot the bill for the party, which usually features food that is good enough that no one complains but not so good that a donor may wonder why such money didn’t go directly into the coffers of the political committee.

For the hard work, such a host or hostess may get a mention in a press pool report, with its eyes-pressed-to-the-window quality:

“After an uneventful drive down lovely shaded lanes, pool arrived at 5 PM at the first fundraiser,” began a pool report for a Romney fundraiser in Locust Valley, N.Y. on Sept 13. “The estate has a manicured lawn” — manicured lawns make frequent cameos in pool reports — “divided by a gravel drive, a large home, and several outbuildings, including a greenhouse and an ‘automobile stable,’ where your pool is now holding. An automobile stable, it turns out, is just a fancy garage. This one contains a Thunderbird convertible and a couple of scooters.”

If the fundraisers bring enough donors to these parties, they become “bundlers” — and then maybe ambassadors to nice countries such as the Bahamas (Mary Ourisman) and Portugal (Elizabeth Bagley).

But that comes much, much later, if and when the candidate gets to move into the White House. For now, the Romney campaign has offered to its two dozen top donors an invitation to lunch at the Regency in New York on Monday with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

And while Romney’s next fundraiser in Florida’s Palm Beach County, on Thursday, should be zipped up firmly after the uproar over the last one, his message is likely to be just as plainly stated as in the room in Boca Raton four months ago:

“Frankly what I need you to do is raise millions of dollars.”

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