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."
On Jan. 10, the day Richardson announced he was leaving the race, Stratton's phone rang again. It was Bill Clinton. They talked for several minutes, with Clinton emphasizing that Stratton could play a crucial role going into Feb. 5. "He said there was still a lot of money to be raised, and it would be a major factor in who prevails coming down the stretch here," Stratton said. The former president closed the deal. Stratton scheduled a Denver fundraiser for Hillary Clinton on Jan. 30, with her husband as the headliner.
Though no potential source of funds is being overlooked, the decision by both campaigns to send emissaries to the trial lawyers' winter conference here was a product of timing -- it coincided with the South Carolina primary, where Edwards's struggling campaign took a major hit. And it was a testament to the crucial role played by the legal profession in Democratic fundraising.
Trial lawyers have proved to be the financial mainstay for Edwards's two presidential bids, as well as for the Democratic Party in general. An analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics found that nearly a third of the $30 million Edwards raised during the first nine months of 2007 came from lawyers, many of whom were attracted by his success as a plaintiff's attorney. And of the $82 million lawyers have donated to federal candidates so far during the 2008 cycle, 77 percent of it went to Democrats.
Officials with the American Association for Justice, which hosted the conference, noted that it has members backing many candidates, including Republicans. But in interviews with some of the conference participants -- conducted outside the hotel conference halls, which were closed to the media -- they made it clear that their loyalties rest with the Democrats.
"I'm finding it extremely difficult to get behind any single person -- to pick between friends," said Todd Smith, a Chicago lawyer who had supported Biden and Edwards, and now is sizing up both Obama and Clinton. "But I know whichever Democrat wins will be getting a lot of support from trial lawyers."
And many of the lawyers here appeared eager to continue raising money. McAuliffe said yesterday that he had only to camp out in the hallway to find lawyers interested in helping. At one point, as he sat at a poolside bar, New Jersey lawyer Garry R. Salomon introduced himself as he leaned over to buy a drink. After Salomon complimented Clinton, McAuliffe asked for his card. "That was an expensive drink, brother," McAuliffe joked.
After two days of working the hundreds of trial lawyers in town, McAuliffe said he concluded "they're ready to move." He said he received commitments from at least three trial lawyers to raise $100,000 before Feb. 5, including one from a current Edwards supporter.
Efforts by both leading campaigns to peel away Edwards fundraisers have been in the works for months, but they began to take shape when Edwards lost in Iowa.
"He put all his eggs in the Iowa basket," said Mark Gilbert, a top Obama fundraiser in Florida. "After he lost, there was this sense that the writing was on the wall."
Edwards's top fundraiser, Fred Baron, said he was not surprised to see some trial lawyers raising money for other candidates as well. "There's an enormous amount of crossover," he said. But Baron said he has not seen any "leakage" in recent days from Edwards's core supporters. In fact, he said many of the trial lawyers he has spoken with this week have passionately urged Edwards to stay in the race. "They don't want his voice silenced."
Former Georgia governor Roy Barnes said he chided a suitor from a rival Democratic campaign, telling him he would be staying with Edwards "until he breathes his last breath."
Gilbert said his conversations with trial lawyers in Florida began delicately. Mitchell Berger and Robert M. Montgomery, both Florida lawyers who have strongly backed Edwards, said they were approached gently by friends in the Clinton and Obama camps.
"It was very respectful," Berger said. "A soft sell." Neither jumped immediately.
Montgomery said he told one friend in the Clinton camp that "if it looks like he's clearly stuck in third place, or he withdraws from the race, I will support another Democrat, but I have not made a final decision."
In recent days, the push has been more direct.
Tom Girardi, a trial lawyer in Los Angeles and a longtime Edwards supporter, said after the former senator took only 4 percent of the vote in Nevada, his colleagues started to shift allegiances. Girardi said many of his friends were planning to attend a major L.A. fundraiser for Clinton on Jan. 31, and he mused at the notion of Edwards as attorney general. That concept appeared to be gaining currency among many at the trial lawyer conference.
"I think had my dear friend Senator Edwards done better, it would be easier to stay," Girardi said. "But the trial bar is in desperate need of a winner."