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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Cancel That Limo, the Kerry Fundraiser's On Hold

June 08, 2004|Matea Gold and Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writers

The catering had to be canceled, the flowers were donated to a local hospital -- and someone had to tell more than 7,000 guests not to show up.

When Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential campaign, out of deference to Ronald Reagan, postponed two gala fundraisers scheduled this week in Los Angeles and New York, the decision turned months of careful planning upside-down.

Now, organizers are rescheduling the events on the fly -- a far-from-easy task.

Walt Disney Concert Hall and New York's Radio City Music Hall have to be rebooked or alternative venues found. Contracts with about a dozen vendors in each city have to be renegotiated. And the performers -- including Barbra Streisand, Billy Crystal, Willie Nelson, Bette Midler, James Taylor and Robin Williams -- have to come to an agreement.

By late Monday, the campaign was already close to finalizing new dates for the concerts in June. And with the exception of some of the performers slated for the New York event, it looked like all the entertainers would be able to participate, aides said.

It was a fast adjustment of two large-scale productions that had been in the works since mid-March, when Rolling Stone magazine publisher Jann S. Wenner and other luminaries agreed to produce the fundraisers. The events are expected to raise millions for Kerry's campaign and the Democratic Party.

Despite the hassle, participants have been understanding about the change, said Lara Bergthold, Kerry's deputy political director who works with the entertainment community.

"Especially in L.A., which is obviously the home of President Reagan, we have had tremendous response from our donors, who understand and appreciate the campaign's response to this," she said.

Political experts said that Kerry had little choice in the matter. Holding red-meat partisan events during a week of memorials honoring Reagan probably would have sparked substantial criticism of the presumed Democratic nominee, many said.

"You can just see the fundraisers tearing their hair out," said Ethan Geto, a Democratic strategist in New York. "But Kerry was virtually obliged to make a gesture like this that was meaningful."

Marge Tabankin, director of Streisand's philanthropic foundation, said there was a consensus among those involved that the concerts needed to be rescheduled.

"There are moments when partisanship needs to be set aside, and this is one of them," Tabankin said.

So on Sunday, more than 20 volunteers crammed into Kerry's West Los Angeles office to call and e-mail close to 2,000 donors expected to attend Monday night's concert downtown. In case anyone still hadn't heard about the change, volunteers were assigned to stand outside Disney Hall on Monday to explain the situation.

But word seemed to have gotten around. Many of Southern California's most wealthy, famous and politically active Democrats were swapping e-mails about the postponement. They canceled limo drivers and switched their dinner reservations from downtown bistros to more familiar Westside favorites.

Meanwhile, in New York, where 5,500 supporters were expected to converge at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday night, donors received apologetic e-mails. The messages included "a special note."

"For those of you who were not able to attend or were on the fence: Now you have more time and I'm asking to you reconsider being involved!" wrote Daniel Stark, a member of the local host committee.

"Please join us to defeat Bush this November with your time and your financial support.... It's the only things we have to get regime change in our country!" Stark added.

Jeff Ayeroff, a music industry veteran and founder of the Rock the Vote program that encourages political involvement by young people, said the mutual attraction between politicians and entertainers -- as well as the hefty resources involved -- makes it possible to reschedule such events at the last minute.

"The very last component in an event is the magic, but everything before that is strategic and there are machines that make it happen," said Ayeroff, who was planning on attending the Disney concert.

In the end, campaigns have to be flexible and ready to "move on a dime," said Joe DePlasco, a New York public relations consultant.

"In this case, hundreds of thousands of dimes," he said.

So in Los Angeles, trucks loaded with sound and light equipment were halted Sunday morning just before they headed to Disney Hall.

The flower arrangements for Monday's pre-concert dinner were already made, so the campaign donated them to Cedars-Sinai Hospital.

For the most part, relieved organizers said they were able to persuade nearly every vendor to carry their orders over to a new date.

"We're trying to have a 'Groundhog Day' situation," Bergthold said.

But countless details can still slip through the cracks. Until Monday afternoon, for example, Streisand's official website was still promoting her appearance at Disney Hall.

Willie Nelson's fans may have felt even more out of the loop. His site made no mention of his appearance at a Kerry fundraiser. Instead, it noted that the country singer "supports Dennis Kucinich for President."

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