Clinton nabs K St. backers her rivals shun

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has a network of lobbyists and political insiders three times the size of her closest Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), but many influential party members inside the Beltway are holding back to see how their race plays out.

Clinton has the support of several of the most prominent Democratic lobbyists, such as Thomas Boggs, Pat Griffin, Joel Johnson, Steve Ricchetti, and Mike Berman, who can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for her campaign. Citing what he suggests is a new brand of politics, Obama has taken an extraordinary step for a presidential candidate by declining contributions from lobbyists. He is even shunning money they might raise for him from non-lobbyists.

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This will force him to rely heavily on grassroots and Internet fundraising, a strategy that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) used to considerable early success in the 2004 presidential race.

Clinton, meanwhile, is planning a mega-fundraiser for March 20 at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington. At a Clinton presidential-finance meeting last month, her advisers set a $15 million fundraising goal for the first three months of 2007, although one Democratic source said that bar has been raised yet higher.

Obama’s campaign had raised or received pledges of $10 million when he declared his candidacy on Feb. 10, said a source familiar with the fundraising effort. Obama is rumored to have raised $12 million as of the beginning of March.

Lobbyists and D.C.-based political insiders are helpful in several respects. They can raise money for candidates and put them in touch with networks of wealthy donors; they can provide political and policy expertise; and they can help generate media buzz.

 “Most K Street folks have political experience — many of them have presidential campaign experience,” said former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), now a managing partner of Clark & Weinstock who is serving as policy chairman to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R) presidential campaign. He said organizing a presidential campaign is “like starting up a major corporation that will be in business only a few years. There’s a limited number of people who have expertise doing it.”

By virtue of serving eight years as first lady, Clinton has ties to many of the Democratic Party’s most talented and experienced political operatives. Nevertheless, her rivals have managed to pick off some high-profile members of the Clinton administration.

Former Clinton Commerce Department Secretary Bill Daley, former White House counsel Abner Mikva, and former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake are supporting Obama. Former White House political director Doug Sosnik and former Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg have signed up with Sen. Chris Dodd’s (D-Conn.) White House campaign. And Ronald Klain, who served as assistant to the president and as chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore, is in Sen. Joseph Biden’s (D-Del.) camp.

One of Obama’s allies, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), acknowledged that Clinton has a much stronger political network than the junior senator from Illinois.

“Hillary Clinton has tremendous strength in part because of the remarkable national network that [the Clintons have] been able to create over the years,” said Daschle in an interview. “That list is as extensive as any candidate for president has had in modern times. Barack doesn’t have that. No question she’s in a much stronger position than he is at this point network-wise.”

But Daschle, a consultant at Alston & Bird, suggested that Obama may use this to his advantage by portraying Clinton as a compromised Washington insider and himself as an outsider with new ideas, not beholden to D.C.’s political and business establishment.

“The longer you’re in Washington, the less capable you are of presenting yourself to the country [in a way] that articulates the need for a change in direction,” he said. “You become part of the Washington establishment. … I found that to a certain extent I had to fight that perception in my more senior years in the Senate.”

Perhaps reflecting Obama’s outsider status, two prominent political insiders backing him, Daley and Mikva, are based in Chicago. A third, Alan Solomont, an important Democratic fundraiser, lives in Massachusetts.

Before banning lobbyist cash from his campaign, Obama took relatively little money from K Street political action committees (PACs) in the 2004 and 2006 election cycles. During that time he raised about 8 percent of his funds from PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), giving him little opportunity to hobnob with lobbyists at D.C. fundraising receptions.

Clinton has collected even less from PACs: According to CRP, only 4 percent of her total fundraising during her Senate career has come from the committees. Nevertheless, Clinton is well-connected to the Democratic lobbying community.

Many Democratic lobbyists and insiders are, however, staying neutral or keeping their allegiances secret for now, waiting to see if Obama can close the gap with Clinton. An NBC/Wall Street Journal national poll this month showed Clinton 12 points ahead of Obama. That is down from a 19-point lead she held in December.

A survey conducted by The Hill in the last two weeks found more than 120 GOP lobbyists had signed up with either Romney, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) or former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the Republican frontrunners. Fewer Democrats appear to be making commitments.

“A whole host of people are willing to let the dust settle; the squabbling has led a lot of people to say that they may hold off for a month,” said a Democratic lobbyist allied with Clinton, referring to the campaign clash occasioned by the comments made by music mogul David Geffen disparaging Clinton and her husband.

“Up until this point the K Street crowd has been relatively ignored” by the campaigns, he added.
Clinton has not had to woo K Street with the same intensity as the GOP frontrunners because her two biggest rivals, Obama and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), have distanced themselves from D.C. insiders to promote themselves as outsiders.

“Senator Edwards has never taken a single contribution from a PAC or federal lobbyist and he never will,” said Edwards campaign spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield. “The only special interests John Edwards is fighting for are the interests of hardworking Americans across the country.”

Edwards has little discernible support downtown, and one source close to the Edwards campaign claimed that it is not working to change that. But a Democratic lobbyist said Edwards has tapped former House Majority Whip David Bonior (D-Mich.) to build more Washington-based support.

The campaign declined to make Bonior available for an interview.

Who's backing whom in presidential race