WASHINGTON — After Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. appeared to take himself out of the Democratic presidential race a few weeks ago, a group of party fund-raisers met with him and helped change his mind.
"We think he has presidential qualities," said Nathan Landow, leader of the group, which he estimates can raise about $4 million to help finance Gore's long-shot bid for the White House.
Even in the post-Watergate era of political reform, money talks and candidates listen. And in the fast-starting 1988 presidential campaign, with its accelerated schedule of primaries and wide-open fields in both parties, the role of the fund-raiser has become more important than ever.
New Political Breed
As a result of federal ceilings on campaign contributions, candidates can no longer rely on "fat-cat" individual givers but must depend instead on wholesale collectors such as Landow. Members of this new political breed are typically endowed with cast-iron hides, boundless persistence and, probably most important of all, a network of affluent friends to whom they in effect subcontract out parts of their fund-raising task.
"I don't call somebody for a $1,000 check," said Terry McAuliffe, finance chairman of Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt's Democratic campaign. "I try to find people who can raise maybe $10,000, $25,000 or $100,000."
Some of the fund-raisers hope to influence public policy. Others may privately nurture hopes of nailing down an ambassadorship. But all seem to relish high-level involvement in presidential campaigning as a way to gratify their egos.
"There are are some people doing it because it gives them a warm and wonderful feeling to do something worthwhile for government," said Rod Smith, finance director of New York Rep. Jack Kemp's campaign for the Republican nomination. "And some people are doing it simply to be associated with power."
Candidates themselves are often reluctant to ask for money.
Never Mentioned Money
Gephardt, for example, spent 45 minutes fielding questions from a conference room full of potential contributors in an Atlanta brokerage house recently but never mentioned money. Afterward the 30-year-old McAuliffe, who combines brash charm with tenacity and who claims once to have briefly wrestled an alligator to squeeze a contribution from a Seminole Indian chief, remonstrated with his candidate about his failure to drop even a hint about contributions.
"He promised it wouldn't happen again," McAuliffe said. Sure enough, after McAuliffe returned to Washington, Gephardt reported to him from Atlanta that at his subsequent two appearances, he had asked for money both times.
McAuliffe and his counterparts in other campaigns cannot afford to pass up any opportunities because the price of the presidency, which by law is adjusted for inflation every four years, has gone up to roughly $27 million in 1988, from $24.2 million in 1984. This is the spending limit for each candidate during the primary election season.
Most contenders will probably drop out of the race before they raise anywhere near that amount, but any candidate who hopes to go the distance probably needs to raise something close to it.
Matching Federal Grants
Federal grants help by matching the first $250 of each individual contribution, and that means they usually account for about one-third of all revenue. But while the spending ceiling has been climbing, the federal limit on individual contributions remains at $1,000, the level established in 1976.
"That $1,000 is worth only little more than a third of what it was in 1976," due to inflation, said Charles T. Manatt, co-chairman of Gary Hart's presidential campaign and a top Democratic fund-raiser. "That means it's three times as difficult as it was in 1976 to raise the dollars you need to raise."
Fund-raising is all the more difficult this year because, with no incumbent seeking reelection for the first time since 1968, more than a dozen contenders in both parties are prospecting for cash, the biggest field since the campaign reforms were enacted.
And then there is the establishment of a "super primary" for Southern states early in next year's campaign calendar, when about one-third of the delegates to both parties' conventions will be chosen. In the view of some presidential strategists, this has increased the need to raise funds this year for early use in the Southern battleground states.
Demand for Fund-Raisers
Given the increased demand for fund-raisers, it is no wonder that a number of them have become more assertive about their roles in campaigns. One of the pacesetters was Landow, a Maryland developer who organized a political action committee, called Impac '88, that was made up of 40 or 50 Democrats who had raised money for Walter F. Mondale's 1984 Democratic presidential campaign.