Special Care for Big Clinton Donors

By Chris Cillizza and Dan Balz
Monday, February 20, 2006

Big-dollar political donors are like exotic animals -- both require near-constant attention and delicate treatment from their handlers.

No politician knows this better than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who -- along with her husband -- has perfected the care and feeding of major contributors.

Witness a series of meetings last week of Clinton's national finance team, the diverse group of donors raising cash for her reelection race this November.

The gathering took place at the Phoenix Park Hotel in Washington last Wednesday, culminating in a dinner at the Georgetown home of Smith and Elizabeth Bagley -- two of the heaviest financial hitters in the party. More than 100 people attended; most were the usual suspects in the Bill and Hillary universe, including Esprit clothing company founder Susie Tompkins Buell and California investment banker John Emerson.

But there were a few surprises among the guests: Texas lawyer Fred Baron, who was the national finance chairman of the 2004 presidential bid of then-North Carolina Sen. John Edwards; Alan Solomont, a major cog in Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry's financial network during his run for the presidency; and Joyce Aboussie, the major-domo of the political universe for former representative Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.).

Baron, Solomont and Aboussie were in town ostensibly to discuss fundraising for Clinton's race this November, not a future presidential bid. For now, Clinton's reelection seems as close to as sure a thing as exists in politics -- a certainty born of her fundraising strength. In the five-plus years since being elected to the Senate, Clinton has raised $33 million for her 2006 race and ended 2005 with $17 million of that total left unspent. Clinton's likely Republican opponent is former Yonkers mayor John Spencer.

A Critical Week for VPs

Perhaps it was just an effort to spread the pain to other vice presidents, but in the midst of the Cheney shooting controversy last week, the White House found time to take a poke at former vice president Al Gore over remarks he made this month in Saudi Arabia.

During a question-and-answer session at the Jiddah Economic Forum, Gore was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that, since Sept. 11, 2001, Arabs in this country have been "indiscriminately rounded up, often on minor charges of overstaying a visa or not having a green card in proper order, and held in conditions that were just unforgivable." He added: "Unfortunately, there have been terrible abuses, and it's wrong. I do want you to know that it does not represent the desires or wishes or feelings of the majority of the citizens of my country."

The comments stirred an angry reaction on the right and in the blogosphere, and also drew a rebuke from Peter Wehner, director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, which was e-mailed to reporters and others Tuesday. "It is noteworthy that Mr. Gore would travel to Saudi Arabia -- a repressive society which is the home of Osama bin Laden and most of the terrorists who executed the worst attack on the American homeland in our history -- to criticize (inaccurately) our government's response to that attack."

Gore has proved one of the most persistent critics of the president (and a hero to many on the left), and Wehner used the rest of his e-mail to chronicle some of those barbs. He said Gore's words are representative of an "angry left" mind-set within the Democratic Party.

Gore, through a spokesman, declined to comment on the White House reaction, apparently on the belief that it would give the administration something more to attack.

Two House Republicans Retiring

Two House Republicans announced their retirements last week, bringing the total of members not seeking reelection this fall to 23.

The announcements by Reps. Bill Jenkins (Tenn.) and Joel Hefley (Colo.) took few political observers by surprise as both men's political futures had been the subject of months of speculation.

At first glance, neither seat is a ripe pickup opportunity for Democrats.

Voters in Jenkins's eastern Tennessee district gave President Bush 68 percent in the 2004 election -- his best showing in the state. Bush won 66 percent of the vote in Hefley's 5th District, based in Colorado Springs.

The question before House Republicans is whether Hefley and Jenkins represent the leading edge of a run of retirements by members of their party fearful of seeking reelection in the current political climate, which clearly tilts toward Democrats.

At the moment there are 15 Republicans retiring compared with eight House Democrats not seeking reelection. Of the 15 GOP vacancies, six are expected to be seriously contested by both parties; three of the eight Democratic open seats appear likely to be closely fought.

A look at recent history suggests that several more retirements are likely before the fall. In 2004, 34 members did not seek reelection. There were 35 retirements in 2002 and 30 in 2000.

Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this column.

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