Top Candidates' Teams Look to the Lawyers

Terry McAuliffe is chairman of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign.
Terry McAuliffe is chairman of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 28, 2008

FAJARDO, Puerto Rico -- As the race for the Democratic presidential nomination raged on in South Carolina and across the country this weekend, America's top trial lawyers became the focal point of a different aspect of the campaign at a seaside resort here.

At a kickoff reception for the lawyers' winter conference, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, slapped backs and clinked glasses poolside for hours. "I talked to everyone down there, including the waiters," he said as he headed for another reception.

Upstairs, at a mahogany-paneled martini bar, Sen. Barack Obama's finance director, Julianna Smoot, was huddled with a group of Florida attorneys whose hearts, if no longer their inner handicappers, were still with former senator John Edwards, the candidate they all called "Johnny."

With South Carolina primary returns showing Edwards a distant third, McAuliffe and Smoot both sensed an opportunity: Some of the Democratic Party's most prolific fundraisers were looking for a new candidate to get behind.

So in conference rooms, at the casino and by the pool, the Obama and Clinton finance officials engaged in what could only be described as a campaign within the campaign, this one targeting financial backers instead of voters.

Their efforts come at a critical time. While the two Democrats have each raised more than $100 million over the past year, they have now spent the vast majority of that money. They are just days from the mega-primaries scheduled for Feb. 5 and need to feed enormous field operations and a television advertising budget that is already consuming more than $2 million every day.

Clinton and Obama have recognized that this stage of the campaign will require a fresh team of bundlers -- supporters who can not only donate their own money but also gather scores of $2,300 checks from friends and colleagues. The logical place to turn is to their struggling -- and in some cases, vanquished -- rivals.

The delicate task of poaching top donors from other Democratic candidates actually began about two months ago, when it became increasingly clear that New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sens. Christopher J. Dodd and Joseph R. Biden Jr. would not be able to break through with voters.

Top fundraisers for Clinton and Obama took the names of key financial supporters from those campaigns, and they began some tentative appeals.

Michael Stratton, a Denver political consultant who had been a top fundraiser for Richardson, said he started getting calls before the New Hampshire primary. The first came from McAuliffe, who told him "we need you with us if Bill [Richardson] is going to get out," Stratton said.

A day later, Stratton heard from Thomas Hoog, a friend who had served as Gary Hart's chief of staff, and who now was helping recruit support for Obama. Hoog tried to paint the campaign as a rerun of the 1984 contest, with Obama taking on Hart's role as the young, fresh-thinking outsider. "This is new blood," Hoog told Stratton, conjuring memories of their work together for Hart. "Another time for change."

"I wasn't eager to go somewhere different," Stratton said. "But they were planting the seeds."

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