Lobbyists Boost McCain Campaign
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 28, 1999; Page A1
Sen. John McCain may be best known for his long and so-far losing crusade to overhaul campaign finance laws, but Washington's K Street crowd is boosting his long-shot presidential campaign for a time-honored reason: No matter how the Arizona Republican fares on the national scene, he is still the chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Overseeing issues from airline deregulation to telecommunications and the Internet, McCain has drawn more fund-raising support inside the Beltway for his presidential exploratory committee than from anywhere outside his Arizona home base. And while Texas Gov. George W. Bush is the overwhelming Republican leader both in the polls and at the bank, McCain equals him in a traditional gauge of Washington strength: contributions from political action committees.
With checks from a variety of telecommunications and transportation interests, McCain this month reported $113,000 in PAC donations for his presidential bid. Overall, he took in more than $225,000 from the Washington area and had $2.7 million in the bank -- a fund-raising start that put him second to Bush in the crowded GOP field.
McCain said in an interview last week that his public identification with the cause of campaign finance reform poses no conflict with the fund-raising assets of his chairmanship. "There's no contradiction whatsoever," he said on the same day that he and Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) won the $25,000 JFK "Profile in Courage Award" for sponsoring their campaign reform bill.
Instead, McCain attributed his D.C. fund-raising appeal to his long tenure on Capitol Hill. "These are people I've known and done business with for 17 years in the Congress," he said.
To McCain's lobbyist backers, however, his chairmanship is the key to his appeal here under what one called "the Wilbur Mills rule" of presidential campaign giving.
Mills, the Ways and Means Committee chairman best known for his Tidal Basin dip with a stripper, waged a short-lived 1972 presidential campaign underwritten by lobbyists with business before him. Now, he's become Washington shorthand for the practice whereby "the highest-ranking member of Congress" running for president benefits -- whether front-runner, like Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) four years ago, or long shot, like McCain today.
"People like to give under the theory that no matter what happens, he's still chairman of the Commerce Committee," said J. Steven Hart, whose firm Williams & Jensen has represented clients such as Time Warner Inc. and Continental Airlines with interests before McCain's panel.
Hart was one of more than a dozen Republican lobbyists who lent their names for a March 23 McCain fund-raiser at the downtown restaurant Red Sage. A dinner for the "host committee" followed the reception; the sea bass drew raves. Despite leaving early for a television appearance, McCain "talked to everybody and worked the room," said Mary E. McAuliffe, a former Commerce aide who is now head of Union Pacific's Washington office.
McCain raised more than $120,000 that night -- his biggest single Washington fund-raiser. Only events in his home state of Arizona (a Biltmore Hotel gala raised more than $500,000) and New York (a Regency Hotel event sponsored by American International Group Chairman Maurice Greenberg pulled in $150,000) added more to his bank account.
Among the lobbyist-hosts listed on the invitation was perhaps McCain's most prominent D.C. backer, former Reagan White House chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein, whose firm represents such Commerce-regulated businesses as United Airlines, Time Warner, Comsat, CSX and the National Cable Television Association.
Others hosting the event included John W. Timmons, McCain's former legislative director, now lobbying for Arizona-based America West Airlines; ex-representative Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a House GOP leadership insider who lobbies for Microsoft and other big-name clients; and Will Ball, president of the National Soft Drink Association. Former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, now a major lobbyist, serves on Bush's exploratory committee but gave $1,000 to McCain as well.
PACs that have given McCain the maximum $5,000 are tilted toward those run by Commerce-interested businesses -- transportation interests such as Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Federal Express, telecommunications companies such as Bell Atlantic, BellSouth and GTE, and casinos such as Mirage Resorts.
"Lots of people do lots of business with the Senate Commerce Committee," said one business lobbyist who helped recruit other hosts for the event. "I've got to believe that it helps."
Lobbyist Timothy P. McKone will host another McCain Washington fund-raiser, a May 11 dinner at the steakhouse Morton's of Chicago. A partner of McCain campaign manager Rick Davis, whose firm emphasizes telecommunications lobbying, McKone said the invitees are a cross-section of K Street.
The guest list "is not industry-specific," he said. "I've got a whole mix -- health care, banking, insurance. You name it." Response for the $500-a-person, $1,000-a-PAC event has been good, he said. "It's probably hard to find somebody in Washington who hasn't worked closely with McCain."
McCain and his advisers say his fund-raising has been boosted as much by his broader identification in the business community with the issue of free trade as by his Commerce chairmanship.
They note that unlike other Republican presidential hopefuls -- such as former vice president Dan Quayle and former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander -- he declined to set up a state-level PAC to raise "soft money" contributions. And they emphasize that with Bush out to raise a record $50 million, McCain's money goals are simply to remain competitive.
McCain saw firsthand the perils of waging a presidential campaign oriented more toward money than message: He was the chairman of fellow GOP Sen. Phil Gramm's 1996 bid, which took in record-setting amounts of cash but faltered early at the polls.
"The moral of Gramm's story is that not only do you have to raise the money, you have to be careful how you spend it," McCain said, noting that Gramm spent $19 million in 1995 that would have been better saved until the election year.
But while eschewing Gramm's spending plan, McCain is relying on the Texas senator's chief fund-raiser, consultant Carla Eudy. "This is not just about John McCain the Commerce Committee chairman," she said. "I think people underestimate how many personal relationships McCain has. Even though he's new on the national front, he's not new."
From New York to Chicago to Atlanta, Eudy has accompanied McCain on an extensive fund-raising road show and she noted some prominent supporters he has attracted who are not strictly focused on his Commerce agenda -- such as New Jersey Devils owner John J. McMullen, who hosted a hockey game event for the senator this month, and Wall Street types including Goldman Sachs Chairman Henry M. Paulson Jr. McCain's money network, Eudy said, also features old friends from his Navy days and the military establishment, including retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, who gave $1,000 both to Bush and McCain.
But even outside Washington, many McCain financial backers have stakes in the committee's work. Some, like executives with communications companies such as Viacom, Paramount, AT&T Wireless and BellSouth, gave to both McCain and Vice President Gore. The Colorado-based chairman of Echostar Communications Corp., Charles W. Ergen, whose satellite TV firm is battling with broadcasters over government regulations, recently hosted a fund-raiser for McCain. So did Ameritech Chairman Richard Notebaert, who co-hosted a Chicago event for him and whose PAC donated the maximum $5,000.
In the District, Bush will lead the fund-raising while McCain competes with another Beltway veteran, Elizabeth Dole, for the rest of the city's major money. Dole, hoping to match her husband's Washington fund-raising of four years ago, kicked off her efforts last night with an event at the Washington Hilton that aimed to collect more than $400,000.
But McCain's camp sees this as his turf. "Washington," Eudy said, "is close to being his home town. He's been there for a long, long time."
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