Obama Taps Two Worlds To Fill 2008 War Chest

Barack Obama has found more support online than his opponents have, but he also has his share of big-name, big-money Democratic fundraisers.
Barack Obama has found more support online than his opponents have, but he also has his share of big-name, big-money Democratic fundraisers. (By Gregory Smith -- Associated Press)
By Matthew Mosk and John Solomon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sen. Barack Obama's elite inner circle of presidential-campaign fundraisers filed into the basement ballroom of a Washington hotel last week to hear the candidate describe "the yearning that America has for change" and his strategy for "tapping into it."

A senator for only two years, the Illinois Democrat has been cast in the early stages of the campaign as an upstart who refused money from Washington lobbyists and parlayed Internet savvy, opposition to the Iraq war and grass-roots enthusiasm into a surprising $25 million first quarter of fundraising -- money that has made him a legitimate contender for the party's nomination.

Behind the closed doors of last week's strategy session, though, was another side to Obama's fundraising success. Filling the room were many veterans of the Democratic financial establishment: a Hyatt hotel heiress, a New York hedge fund manager, a Hollywood movie mogul and a Chicago billionaire.

Obama stood at the front of the room fielding questions for nearly an hour from his national finance team, each of whom has pledged to raise at least $250,000. He shared secret plans for a series of soon-to-be-released policy statements and urged them to call him personally to "tell me how to communicate talking points to you to make you more effective."

As the first-quarter finance report his campaign will file today is expected to document, Obama has managed to successfully bridge two very different political worlds. Along with thousands of first-time donors who sent $50 or $100 from their home computers, the report is to list scores of longtime political insiders who funneled stacks of $2,300 checks to Obama's accounts.

The campaign announced earlier this month that Obama has received money from more than 100,000 people, including 50,000 Internet donors -- more online donors than his chief Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), had total donors. Less well-known is the story of how he built a more traditional fundraising machine fueled, in part, by some of the biggest names in Democratic politics.

"It is the single easiest fundraising phone call that I have ever made, ever," said Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Hollywood producer, who set out to raise half a million dollars for Obama and raised more than $1.7 million. "In 25 years. Literally. For charity, politics, anything. It kind of blew me away; if I made 100 phone calls, 90 of them were successes."

In contrast to Clinton and former North Carolina senator John Edwards, his other main Democratic rival, Obama was a late entrant in the presidential race, first raising the idea publicly last October and not deciding firmly until January.

In his 2004 Senate campaign, Obama relied in part on the muscular financial team of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, as well as the national donors he picked up after his well-received speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. With nothing like the national networks of Edwards and Clinton, Obama finance officials said they expected it to take time to woo and sign up establishment fundraisers -- many of whom had long-standing ties to Clinton and her husband, President Bill Clinton.

They also knew it would take effort to grow a direct-mail fundraising base to keep a regular flow of small donations coming in.

Penny Pritzker, the Hyatt heiress, helped raise money for Obama's Senate campaign, and he enlisted her as national finance chairwoman for the presidential race. "Candidly, I'd never done this before; I didn't know what to expect," she said.

Fundraisers in the field also worried that Obama's initial pledge to reject money from lobbyists would slow the early hunt for donations.

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