The $75 Million Woman

(By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 8, 2007

On a frigid day in early January, Barack Obama rode the three blocks from the Capitol to a nondescript, four-story, white-brick building where he had rented a spartan office suite.

Obama pulled out a folding chair and sat down with Julianna Smoot, the veteran Democratic fundraiser he had hired to raise the millions of dollars he would need for a presidential bid. Smoot thumbed through a thin list of potential donors that Obama had gathered during his 2004 Senate bid in Illinois and as he helped other politicians raise money for elections in 2006. She frowned.

"It wasn't much to work with," Smoot recalled. "But that was how we started. He asked me what he should do, and I said, 'Start calling. And don't forget to ask for their credit card numbers.' "

That was the beginning of a fundraising juggernaut that, perhaps more than any other single factor, helped transform Obama into a serious contender for the presidency. By the end of September, the senator from Illinois had raised more money for his primary bid than any other candidate in either party -- more than $75 million. He did it not simply by using the new possibilities of the Internet, for which he has received considerable attention, but by creating almost overnight a network of "bundlers" -- a core group of motivated supporters with the Rolodexes to bring along friends and associates.

But last week, for the first time, Obama was eclipsed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who raised $22 million for the quarter to Obama's $19 million. Now, with Clinton widening her lead in national polls, Obama's ability to continue raising money will be seen as a crucial indicator of whether his candidacy can pick up momentum in time for the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in January, or whether Clinton has become unstoppable.

Smoot, 40, the fast-talking daughter of a North Carolina golf pro, said she has never been fazed by the thought of competing with the most voracious Democratic fundraising team in recent memory, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

"I respect them. And I respect the people that work for them. But no, they're not intimidating at all," Smoot said last week.

Over the weekend, Smoot met in Iowa with more than 100 members of Obama's national finance committee, a group of bundlers she helped recruit. She and others with the campaign repeated what Obama's aides have maintained: Ignore the national polls and focus on Iowa and New Hampshire. Together, they mapped out a packed schedule of fourth-quarter fundraising events -- proof, they said, that the campaign is still on track. And they reminded the group that they consider the Clintons, while fierce opponents, visages of the past.

"All Democrats respect and admire the Clintons and are grateful for what they've done. But people want someone different now," Smoot said. "And you know what?" she added, her tone softening as if she was about to share a secret: "It's not a hard sell."

Wanted: 'An Honest Assessment'

The task of assembling a national fundraising operation has been compared to building a Fortune 500 company virtually overnight. For a candidate such as Obama, who began seriously considering a run for president only a year ago and had no experience in a national race, the challenge was that much more difficult.

Last November, three months before Obama announced his bid, two of his senior advisers quietly approached Smoot with a proposition: Write us a memo explaining how you would mount a presidential fundraising drive, and if we like it, we'll hire you.

"What we really wanted was an honest assessment," one of the advisers, Steve Hildebrand, recalled. "We told her, 'We'd like the ability to raise $12 million in the first quarter. We feel we need to do that.' "

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company