Some of the Democratic Party's most successful fund-raisers say they are deeply disillusioned with Vice President Gore's political operation and contemplate shifting their focus to other candidates, including Hillary Rodham Clinton if she runs for the Senate.
In interviews, leading Democrats on both coasts, in Washington and the South said they are frustrated dealing with an unwieldy political operation that has given the major money-raising assignments to young staff members while underutilizing many of the men and women who have raised money for Gore since his days in the Senate.
"They are not as organized as they should be," said Richard Ziman, a California developer who has raised millions for Democrats, including President Clinton and California Gov. Gray Davis. "This is going to be a tough campaign for Al Gore and the sooner he captures [donors], the sooner they won't be captured by the enemy."
Although some of the complaints could be dismissed as grumbling by big egos, the disaffection in the fund-raising community is widespread and could not come at a more critical time this year. Financially, the vice president and his money machine are battling high expectations; pressure is on Gore to finish the first half of 1999 with a fund-raising report that far surpasses Democratic rival Bill Bradley and keeps pace with Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R), who expects to raise at least $10 million this quarter.
And after nearly two months of negative publicity and internal strife, Gore cannot afford to lose the support of a cadre of prominent chief executive officers, Hollywood tycoons and Wall Street investors. Gore, who reported collecting an impressive $8.9 million in the first quarter of the year, aims to raise $55 million by early 2000 for what surely will be the most expensive presidential race in history.
"Things are going reasonably well," said Alan Solomont, a Boston entrepreneur and former national Democratic finance chairman. "I don't think the Gore campaign is operating at maximum efficiency, but we're moving in that direction."
Another entrepreneur said the key to presidential fund-raising is the personal connection between the givers and the askers, and that has broken down in the Gore campaign.
"When this is done by the paid staff, the only folks they go to are the names from the previous campaign," said this fund-raiser, who is not certain whether he will continue to work for Gore 2000. "When I call people, I know how many times Al's met them and whether he stayed at their house. Those things are impossible for a new staffer to know."
This fund-raiser and many others said they are looking to Gore's new campaign chairman, Tony Coelho, to quickly repair the damage.
"I hope he'll bring some focus to the operation," said Tom Hendrickson, a Raleigh, N.C., business executive who recently ran the Democratic Business Council.
"I don't think Coelho would have gone over if they were so pleased with what was going on," said Al Dwoskin, a longtime Gore friend who recently hosted a $150,000 event at his McLean home.
Dwoskin attributed many of the glitches to the routine "shakedown period" of any budding campaign and to the unrealistic expectations of some fund-raisers. "I don't expect to be stroked," he said.
Many of Gore's longest serving fund-raisers were reluctant to speak publicly but provided details about the troubled campaign in part to send a message to Gore and Coelho that has otherwise been ignored.
One executive, complaining of the "three-headed" nature of dealing with Gore's White House staff, campaign team and outside consultants, said, "I just don't have time to spend hours and hours in conference calls where you chase your tail."
Some campaign veterans also grouse that Gore's anxiety over any appearance of financial impropriety has created a cumbersome fund-raising process in which even the simplest thank-you note must be screened by a team of lawyers. Gore's political advisers initially refused to let New York organizers put names on the invitation to their Gore event out of fear it might not be "PC" enough, as one put it.
For his part, Coelho, a stellar fund-raiser, said that he is personally assuring many Gore loyalists that the campaign is addressing its structural problems. "I have gotten a lot of calls from fund-raisers who were concerned about this or that, but in the last 10 days they've said they're committed and want to help Al Gore succeed," he said.
The "solicitors" or "collectors," as major fund-raisers are known, are the critical liaisons between the candidate and the cash that fuels modern campaigns. Because current law caps individual contributions at $1,000, presidential candidates such as Gore rely on these movers and shakers to help "vacuum up" the hundreds of thousands of checks needed to run a competitive race.
But equally important for Democrats in general, and Gore in particular, is the role these fund-raisers play in building bridges to the predominantly Republican world of corporate America.
"People in politics study the polls and think a lot about the voters," said one of these executives. "Sometimes they don't think as carefully about where the donors are. They need to think about how to generate those resources this year; it is not something that automatically appears."
Gore already faces the loss of two high-profile fund-raisers: Solomont and Washington lobbyist Dan Dutko have agreed to run the Democratic National Committee's Leadership 2000 Board, a major fund-raising operation. Solomont stressed his primary reason for joining the DNC effort was to help Gore during the general election when millions in party money will be needed to promote the Democratic nominee.
Dutko said yesterday he was "looking forward to having the opportunity to work with the new chairman" of the DNC, Joseph Andrew.
In the two cash-rich states of New York and California, Gore also faces fierce competition for dollars and the attention of top fund-raisers.
One adviser to Hillary Clinton said he expected New York players such as Lazard Freres's Steven Rattner, investment banker Stan Schuman and Susan and Allen Patricoff to help the first lady raise money for a Senate race.
"The likelihood that some of them will move over could have an adverse effect on the vice president," said one prominent New Yorker who is signed on with Gore.
Coelho predicted Hillary Clinton would be so successful at raising money that she would not hamper Gore's efforts.
In California, political veterans describe Gore events that are "ragged." They say the campaign is not "hot" and there is no sign of the financial "heavyweights" who have always delivered for President Clinton. They see little evidence that people such as grocery store magnate Eli Broad, attorney Bill Wardlaw or Hollywood executives David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg are exerting themselves on Gore's behalf.
Many of these same people are attempting to raise $18.3 million for the Los Angeles Democratic nominating convention.
Last week, Gore's chief fund-raiser, Peter Knight, convened meetings in California to prepare for several events next month. In a conversation with one Los Angeles operative, Knight acknowledged that "they have some problems and said they are getting it squared away," said this person. "I would be more worried if he was in denial."
CAPTION: (Photo ran in an earlier edition) Vice President Gore has set a goal of raising $55 million by early next year in what could become the most expensive campaign in American history.