The Gore Machine
In the sprint for campaign cash, he's got the best staff, the most experience and a tested game plan. But Al Gore's greatest strength could also prove to be his greatest vulnerability.
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, April 4, 1999; Page 6
As the grandfather clock in the marble lobby tolls 7, the last of the dinner guests drift into the dining room of the Carlton Hotel on 16th Street. Time to meet, greet and eat with The Candidate.
"Let me begin by saying how grateful I am to all of you for being here tonight," he tells this collection of 25 lawyers, lobbyists, stockbrokers and CEOs. "We need people to participate in our system to make it work. Your support and friendship mean a tremendous amount, especially at this critical time.
"I'm grateful to have you here because you share my vision for the future," he goes on. "Now let's eat."
As the clock chimes 8, white-gloved waiters deliver the main course: halibut in lobster chardonnay sauce, garlic mashed potatoes and a wild mushroom compote. "This gathering is about more than politics and an election," The Candidate continues. "It is really about the 21st century that we want to build for our children; what it will take to move America forward."
And it's really about one other thing as well the one thing that Vice President Al Gore neglects to mention, the thing that no one talks about tonight, but the main thing, in fact, that this particular inside-the-Beltway tribal gathering is all about.
It's about money.
On that chilly February evening when much of official Washington was consumed with the final hours of President Clinton's impeachment trial, his junior partner was hard at work wooing the people he needs to help his own bid for the White House. The dinner at the Carlton, one of five Washington gatherings that month for supporters who'd committed to raise $50,000 each for Gore's campaign, was the starting gun in a frantic financial sprint.
More than any other presidential campaign in modern times, the 2000 race is about money raising a lot of it and raising it fast and raising it without getting caught in the tangled web of rules and regulations that govern the process. With a new, truncated primary calendar that begins in Iowa next February 7 and ends, for all practical purposes, four weeks later in California, the real contenders need to bankroll their entire effort before the year 2000 even begins.
Forget the days when a come-from-behind candidate like Gary Hart could stage an early upset and collect a financial windfall in March and April of primary season. This time around, everyone expects that by then the nominees will be chosen and the losers left for dead.
Already, the money chase has frightened off politicians in both parties. And while the vice president's game plan this year is virtually the same as Lamar Alexander's or Elizabeth Dole's or George W. Bush's, his fund-raising machine is bigger, tougher, faster. By the end of the year, Gore's team hopes to stretch federal fund-raising rules as far as possible to collect an unprecedented $55 million.
With his prep school manners and wooden speaking style, Al Gore would seem an unlikely star in this curious world of political hustling. But when it comes to fund-raising, no player on the national scene has excelled like the vice president. Friends and colleagues describe him as focused, driven, disciplined and seemingly inured to the seamy side of the business a professional fund-raiser's dream. He never says no, never complains; he just goes about his business like the dutiful political son he is.
After a lifetime in politics, Gore has mastered every aspect of the game. He has made countless solicitations in person and by telephone, attended endless dinners, scribbled innumerable thank-you notes and even taken a rare public beating, all for the sake of campaign cash.
For Gore this money has done more than simply pay campaign bills; it's been a measure of his success as a political man. It earned him credibility as a neophyte presidential candidate in 1988, and helped him prove his worth as a ticket mate in 1992 and 1996. This year, it has created an aura of inevitability to his nomination that already has scared off all but one of his Democratic rivals.
But Gore's greatest strength could also prove to be his greatest vulnerability. His Buddhist temple visit, his 52 solicitation calls from the White House and his clumsy "no controlling legal authority" public defense were among the lowlights of the raucous 1996 campaign and its aftermath. Presidential hopefuls such as Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican John McCain are already seeking to portray the vice president as just another sleazy, business-as-usual politician, hat in hand.
Those close to Gore argue that the appearance of sleaze is built into a system that requires candidates to raise large sums from a vast number of contributors. "As you recruit people, the challenge is to make sure you know who they are so they won't embarrass you," says Mickey Kantor, former commerce secretary and a prodigious fund-raiser in his day. "The only protection you have is to know the people or know the people who know the people."
"The first $5 million is easy," says another Democratic fund-raiser. That money, he points out, comes from friends, family and people who have been checked out dozens of times before. But with each additional $5 million, fund-raisers must go farther and farther afield, to donors they don't know as well, whose motives for giving may be less clear. And this is where the process known as "vacuuming" becomes fraught with danger for a candidate like Gore who wants to be thought of and who thinks of himself as Mister Clean.
The 2000 race is occurring in what may be a unique moment in American political history. The arcane fund-raising rules drawn up in the aftermath of Watergate have been stretched beyond all recognition and could well be revised after the next election. But so long as these rules are in place, Al Gore will exploit them. Throughout the rest of this year, the vice president will grip and grin his way through dozens more campaign fund-raisers. Tipper and Bill and Hillary will be sent out to do their part. And an army of fund-raisers will make tens of thousands of phone calls and send out hundreds of thousands of letters asking for money. The campaign will even solicit contributions over the Internet in its effort to hit that magic $55 million mark.
It's an unprecedented sum in American politics, though the kind of figure that seems increasingly common in our turbocharged economy. It may buy a presidential nomination but, curiously, it could barely buy the services of a good center fielder for five years.
What It Takes
From his 11th-floor office just north of Lafayette Square, Terry McAuliffe can almost yell out the window to his friends at the White House, but he doesn't have to. He can just pick up the phone. It's not hard to reach Bill Clinton or Al Gore when you're the man who helped them raise $42 million to win reelection in 1996.
A few framed mementos on the wall tell McAuliffe's tale. There is the feature story headlined "Bill Clinton's Million Dollar Man." There is the photograph of Bill, Terry and golf pro Corey Pavin on the links. And there is the signed photo from Al that thanks Terry for "being the best finance chair on this or any other universe."
Al Gore doesn't like to talk about campaign money. For this story he declined to be interviewed. ("The vice president has made his views very clear on these issues," says spokesman Chris Lehane. "He supports real and meaningful campaign finance reform.") Reporters get shunted in and out of Gore's fund-raising events like plutonium isotopes by handlers who seem to fear they might contaminate the donors. But Terry McAuliffe has no such hang-ups. He's proud of his work. "The American people know you have to raise money to run for president," he says. "It's part of the business of running for president."
The mastermind behind many of the '96 campaign's controversial methods for "servicing" donors the coffee klatches, rounds of golf and pajama parties in the Lincoln Bedroom McAuliffe contends that granting access to contributors is not only legal but inevitable, given the existing rules. "People who raise and give money generally have the opportunity to meet the candidate," he argues. "What are we supposed to do with donors? Take them out to Pennsylvania Avenue and pistol-whip them?"
And if there's one thing McAuliffe is certain of, it's Al Gore's abilities as a fund-raiser. "He is a tireless worker," McAuliffe says. "At the end of the day, no one's going to beat Al Gore because of money."
It's a paradox for outsiders: How is it that Al Gore, Mister Clean, Eagle Scout, rectitude personified, does such a good job in the unattractive business of fund-raising?
But far from belying his Boy Scout image, Gore's fund-raising prowess is simply one more element of it, yet another political merit badge for a man who has been collecting them since he pounded signs into the ground at age 4 for the first Senate campaign of his father, Albert Gore Sr. Friends say he understands the implications of wooing donors the self-salesmanship, the potential for corruption and the sense that donors feel they're buying a piece of you but sees no choice but to play the game.
"If you had asked me in '91, I would have said he hates it and the time it takes away from the things he would rather be doing," says a former aide, who says Gore has come to accept the hunt for money as an essential part of the political process. "If he can internalize the need to do it, he will just suck it up and do it and take satisfaction in doing a job well done. It's like swimming the English Channel in winter you hate every minute of it, but it's a challenge."
Gore has mastered fund-raising the same way he has tackled every arduous task in life, applying the same driving ambition and discipline that enabled him to learn complex subjects such as arms control and environmental protection and bring a sense of order to a severe accident that befell his son in 1989.
"He sees it as his job," says Steve Rattner, a Gore backer who has watched the vice president woo Wall Street givers. "He is very focused, very disciplined. It's not the first place he would like to be, but it will help him get to the place he wants to be."
Before every fund-raiser, Gore is briefed by aides and given a memo summarizing the high points. Typically, he learns the purpose of the event (raise X amount of money for Y fund); what his role will be (brief remarks? full speech? photo op?); who will be there and what their donor histories are.
For Gore, it's about strategic imperatives rather than moral ones, explains a friend who has attended dozens of fund-raisers with Gore over the years. "You can't be judgmental about these people or you'd never survive. If you feel strongly about your ideas and you want to run for president, this is how you do it."
Gore is fluent in the obscure language of the money game. He knows the difference between a "fund-raiser," in which money actually comes in the door, and a "donor maintenance event," at which contributors are stroked for past good deeds and anticipated future generosity. He knows that a "candid" souvenir photo is worthless if the donor and the vice president aren't smiling into the camera. "Gore positions himself and the individual for the pictures," says lawyer-lobbyist Tony Coelho, a former congressman and supreme Democratic fund-raiser. "He's very conscious of it."
Gore also understands donors' need to feel special. In the early weeks of the campaign he has played to this by framing event after event as a "first" of its kind the first dinner, the first gala, the first out-of-town fund-raiser. Meeting with African American donors in New York on March 4, he thanked them for attending "the first formal event of this kind for the Gore 2000 campaign." Four days later, at a party in Washington, he promised supporters, "This is the first. You're here on the ground floor. I can't thank you enough for being here for the very first gala of the whole campaign."
And once the money comes in, Gore has always performed the tedious follow-up tasks with aplomb. After the 1996 Democratic convention, for instance, he had posters printed up with a grinning photo of himself and his wife above the text of his speech. His top "collectors" such as Noach Dear, a Brooklyn, N.Y., councilman who raised in excess of $50,000 received autographed copies.
No fund-raising chore seems too menial or too minute. Gore remembers contributors' birthdays; he inquires after the kids. He hosts thank-you parties to show his appreciation.
And though he may lack the easy charm and personal affability of a Bill Clinton, Gore perfected one skill the president has never mastered. "He's an excellent closer," is how advisers familiar with both men describe the vice president's fund-raising advantage.
"Bill Clinton, in all the years I've known him, has never asked anybody for a dime," says McAuliffe. Sure, the president would charm a roomful of donors with his larger-than-life personality, but he'd always leave it to guys like McAuliffe to bring up money.
Not Al Gore. On the phone or in person, the vice president has known how to seal the deal. Where Clinton might call a donor and mention plans for an upcoming ad campaign, Gore has gotten down to the business of securing the dollars needed to pay for the commercials.
And although those close to Gore hope that as the presidential candidate he won't be quite as personally involved in nailing down donations, his track record has earned him crucial credibility in the fund-raising community. "He has gotten in the fields and worked with the rest of us," says Coelho approvingly. "It shows he's a real player in political circles."
Continued on Page Two
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company