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Full Coverage: Campaign '98

Democratic Hill Campaign Panels Press 'Unity Plan'

By Ceci Connolly and Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 26, 1998; Page A06

House and Senate Democrats are pressing the White House to commit to an ambitious fund-raising plan aimed at generating $20 million for their tough bid to reclaim control of Congress this fall.

The proposal, written jointly by the House and Senate Democratic campaign committees, calls for seven to 13 events in major cities across the country featuring President Clinton, Vice President Gore and their wives. The money would be split three ways among the two congressional committees and the Democratic National Committee.

At a White House lunch last month with House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), Clinton expressed interest in waging an all-out effort to help Democratic candidates. However, Democratic sources said DNC officials have been critical of the plan, warning that it would drain resources from the party's effort to reduce its debt, now nearly $7 million.

"You can't come up with a proposal that bankrupts the DNC," said one White House official. But, he said, "we're going to try to make something work."

The original fund-raising plan called for a series of events that would bring in as much as $25 million to $30 million. But some White House and DNC officials said that was unrealistic and would take too much money away from the DNC, so the goal has been trimmed to between $18 million and $23 million.

DNC National Chairman Steve Grossman said he was "supportive" of a joint fund-raising effort but that "obviously, there are details being worked out."

The inspiration for the fund-raising plan stems from a last-minute push in 1996 that raised $9 million with three similar events. Promoters say Democratic donors will respond better to a show of party unity that enables them to write a single check to benefit all three committees.

"The political environment is out there for us to realize our political goals, winning back the House and keeping our margin in the Senate," said Matt Angle, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "We are hopeful our party leadership is recognizing that and moving to enact a unity plan to make the resources available."

Democratic campaign strategists say it is critical for the party to raise significant sums this election year because of the expected onslaught of "issue advocacy ads" from Republicans and outside groups allied with the GOP. The use of outside ads that target individual candidates emerged during the 1996 campaign as a potent weapon, particularly by labor unions.

In 1998, Democrats expect GOP allies such as business and antiabortion groups to employ the technique on an even broader scale. But the DNC, which in 1996 contributed $2 million each to the House and Senate campaign committees, is not expected to be able to provide such financial assistance this year to help underwrite Democratic issue advocacy efforts.

Headlining the unity fund-raisers "is what the president can do to provide the real help we need to take a shot at winning back the House," said one congressional strategist. "Absent this, a lot of third-party stuff that's going to happen district by district is going to be very hard to respond to."

About three weeks ago, the staffs at the two campaign committees delivered their plan to White House political advisers. They recommended hosting at least seven events beginning in August in such cities as Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and New York, combined with a handful of fund-raisers in Washington.

For Gore, who is preparing for presidential primaries that will likely pit him against Gephardt and possibly Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Kerrey (Neb.), the plan presents a complicated political calculus. On the one hand, helping the congressional committees may inure to the benefit of his rivals more than to Gore. Yet if Democrats succeed at regaining the House, Gephardt would be far less inclined to run for president, opting instead to aim for the speaker's chair.

"He very much wants to do some unity events," said Gore's chief of staff Ronald A. Klain. "He's going to devote a lot of attention to helping Democrats take back the House and Senate."

The debate now is over scale -- when, where and how many events, Klain said.

"The DNC will be reluctant but on board," one Democratic strategist predicted. "The president wants to do it. And it's in Al Gore's vested interest to make Dick Gephardt speaker of the House."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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