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The Money Machine

November 15, 1987|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

WHEN Patricia Schroeder made her pilgrimage to the Westside of Los Angeles while pondering a presidential bid last summer, she joined what one local attorney calls "the California money primary"--the contest for the city's seemingly bottomless pool of political money. No state means more financially to Democratic presidential candidates than California, and Los Angeles is the state's money capital.

The prominence of Los Angeles in the candidates' withering schedules reflects the primacy of fund raising in a modern presidential campaign. Some candidates have already rolled out of California fat with cash. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) collected about $1 million with a pair of events in San Diego and Los Angeles Oct. 29. On the Democratic side, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis has raised $850,000 in the state through October, with the vast majority of that coming from Southern California.

Even in a city known for excess, the relentlessness of political fund raising is stunning. One young studio executive active in Democratic politics summed up his options during a particularly frantic week early this fall: "I am going to see Sen. Paul Simon at the home of Stanley Sheinbaum (a leading local Democratic activist). The next night I can see him at Donna Mills' house. I am choosing Sheinbaum rather than Mills to see Simon. Tonight is Mike Dukakis at Sally Field's house. I will be there. On Monday, I happened to be at Mortons, which is kind of an industry watering hole, and I'm sitting there, and there goes Dukakis and Gloria Steinem. Then Whoopi Goldberg rolls in. Where is she going? She is going to Michael Dukakis' table. You have to keep up."

This year, Los Angeles' liberal donors took the courting process to a new stage by imposing their own order upon it. Rather than waiting for the presidential candidates to come to him, producer Norman Lear, a venerable giver to Democratic candidates and causes, convened a series of dinners at which the cream of liberal Los Angeles could review the aspirants one by one through several hours of private questioning.

The Hollywood Women's Political Committee, a political action committee formed by a group of liberal women in the entertainment industry, also set up screening sessions and demanded three hours from each of the candidates. Because this group had orchestrated the record-setting $1.5-million concert for Democratic candidates at Barbra Streisand's Malibu home last fall, all of the candidates came. And former supporters of Gary Hart, left suddenly without a candidate this spring, scheduled their own private sessions with the remaining contenders.

So far, shopping at these sessions has greatly exceeded buying, which means that much political money in Los Angeles is still unspoken for. But it's not clear how much of that outstanding money any of the remaining candidates will corral. "I think right now you've got to be nuts to get into this and start writing checks because you don't know who is going to last," said one leading L.A. Democratic fund-raiser. And after the searing fall of the stock market on Black Monday, even the Westside elite may think twice about opening their buffeted bank accounts for politicians

Like any other candidate who had not raised much money early, Schroeder, had she stayed in the race, would probably have found the checks tougher to come by after the panic of October.

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