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Top Donors Enjoy Fruits of Their Labors


PHILADELPHIA — The dream makers, power brokers and underwriters of George W. Bush's run for the presidency have been holding their own convention this week, behind the smoky glass of the First Union Center's most luxurious sky boxes.

In this rare environment, suspended high above the convention floor--and away from peering television cameras--the suits are better cut, the women more expertly coiffed. Bartenders serve free drinks, and the food is top of the line--herb goat cheese, shrimp and prime rib. But the most arresting distinction is the aura of self-congratulation among these would-be kingmakers.

For these men--and most of them are men--know that they have paved the way for Bush's parade into the White House with their quarter-million-dollar checks and their record-breaking fund-raising efforts.

They wear discreet solid-gold elephant pins and less discreet black name tags that set them apart as the Bush regents: $250,000 donors. In a fund-raising season when money has flowed in faster and in greater quantities than ever before, the official count showed 137 regents a few days ago, according to Fred Meyer, chairman of Victory 2000, the campaign arm of the Republican National Committee.

While delegates languish at cheap airport hotels, the regents stay at the Four Seasons. While delegates get pep rallies, regents get insider briefings from top-dog Bush officials about the strategy for the campaign's final stretch.

At a luncheon gala Wednesday, they had a private photo session with Bush. Their names were projected on huge screens before a crowd of 3,100, and they sat at front tables in a hall so large that most folks had to look at the screens to see Bush, the keynote speaker.

A party's top donors and fund-raisers are courted and catered to at all times. But nowhere is the wooing and special treatment more intense than at modern national conventions, where the predetermined political outcomes focus attention on building enthusiasm for the party and padding its bank accounts.

Top-level donors and fund-raisers bask in appreciation from the nation's top elected officials, revel in the excitement of being influential players in the political arena and relish rubbing shoulders with the fellow members of their elite fraternity. And at high-profile galas, they showcase their value to their party, if not the American political process.

Critics Say Money Corrupts Process

The ever-increasing role of special-interest money at both parties' political conventions has engendered passionate criticism from campaign finance reform advocates who want to ban unregulated, unlimited donations by individuals and corporations.

"It's bad enough that conventions don't have any decision-making role anymore. But what is really troubling is what is going on behind the scenes, which is enormous soft-money fund-raising," fumed Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.). "They're like giant trade shows for the sale of access to legislators and political power. They will be among the most corrupt moments in American history."

Such views have done nothing this week to diminish the thrill of Republican donors being feted for their role in giving and helping to raise the $93 million that has made Bush the best-financed presidential candidate in history. Their efforts and contributions have also resulted in a flood of more than $86 million in the first six months of this year into the coffers of the Republican National Committee.

The networker extraordinaire of this very elite breed is Brad Freeman, the California finance chairman for Bush's campaign and one of the candidate's best friends.

While he has not written a personal check large enough to make him a regent, Freeman's exhaustive fund-raising efforts for his pal have surely won him much more than his honorary gold elephant pin.

Freeman and co-chairwoman Nancy Brinker raised $10 million for Wednesday's luncheon in just three weeks--double their goal. And Freeman, 58, who runs an equity investment firm, was responsible for most of the take. The feat broke records for previous convention fund-raisers and won Freeman, who is new to fund-raising this election, the admiration of his peers.

"Brad is big-time competition," said Heinz C. Prechter, an auto manufacturing mogul from Michigan who has been a leading GOP fund-raiser for three decades. "He's addicted now to raising money."

Prechter, sipping a drink in a box reserved for top donors, was unabashed in his enthusiasm for fund-raising and how the political rewards have enriched his life and his business.

After becoming one of President Bush's elite Team 100 in 1988--an honor bestowed upon donors of at least $100,000, which seemed like a lot of political money back then--Prechter was named chairman of the president's Export Council.

"It gave me an opportunity to network around the world," Prechter said, and resulted in a contract with Honda to make sunroofs for its cars.

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