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Boxer, Jones at Key Checkpoint in Money Race

June 27, 2004|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The trays inside the North Beach Art Gallery were arranged just so, an eye-pleasing array of cheeses and fruits and light salads surrounded by large paintings of green-and-purple landscapes -- some replacing nudes that had been stored away for the evening, one of the guests volunteered.

But food and art weren't Friday evening's focal point. Money and politics were.

"I thank you for your contribution tonight -- it means everything to me," incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told a diverse crowd of more than 100 supporters at the happy-hour reception that raised $10,000.

"You may think that writing a $10 check or a $20 check doesn't matter. I have an opponent who could write himself probably a $10-million check. But it doesn't carry the clout of the $25 check

Like basketball teams trying to squeeze in two more points before the end of the half, Boxer and Republican challenger Bill Jones are rushing to raise as much cash as they can before Wednesday, the end of the current federal financial reporting period. Though a mere bureaucratic deadline to most observers, to political insiders it is a key indicator of a campaign's health. Details contained in the reports, due July 15, could well foretell how hotly contested the race will be in the final stretch. The next report, due Oct. 15, comes too close to election day to matter.

A cash-rich bank account in July speaks of organization and support, which tends to attract more donations.

"Success begets success," said Jones' strategist Sean Walsh.

But an anemic bank account suggests failing political health, making it harder to attract much fresh money -- including big national dollars -- for the campaign's crucial last eight weeks of expensive television advertising.

"There are only two ways to quantify a campaign before election day: polling and fundraising numbers," said Bill Carrick, a veteran Democratic political consultant. "It takes a hell of a long time to raise money.... Whatever you have by July 1, you usually raise about twice that much by the end."

Part of the June scramble for cash is gamesmanship, an attempt to project an image of momentum before the traditionally slow days of summer, when voters are more interested in vacations than policy debates.

"It's about huffing and puffing in order to bluff the other guy and the other guy's donors into being discouraged and not putting up a good battle," said Bruce M. Cain, a political analyst at UC Berkeley. "The second part is about your own people, generating enthusiasm among activists."

Money matters to all candidates, but it is perhaps most important in this Senate race to Jones. He not only has low statewide visibility, despite serving two terms as California's secretary of state, but also is trying to unseat a two-term incumbent who has been adroit at defining her opponents in voters' minds.

"To beat Sen. Boxer, he's got to raise substantial money to get his message out, do some comparisons with her and make it a real campaign," Carrick said. "If he doesn't show good numbers at the end of the month, it will influence how the media sees his campaign, how the Republican Party sees it, how potential donors see it, and it will influence how all the smarty-pants people back inside the Beltway view his campaign."

John Bovee, a Sacramento-based Republican campaign consultant and fundraiser, agreed, describing the current sprint for cash as key for insiders who can shift donors to or from candidates. Key among them: The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which could kick in as much as $3.4 million to Jones' campaign or decide to spend that money on tighter races elsewhere.

"It's an expectations game," Bovee said. "The problem [Jones] has, just among rank-and-filers, is they wonder if he can win, how he's going to win. He has to make the case, and money is one of those points."

At the close of the last reporting period in March, Jones was nearly broke, while Boxer had $6 million in the bank and a goal of $20 million by election day. Jones has said there is plenty of time to raise enough money to get his message out, but he would have to be raking in nearly half a million dollars a week to raise the $15 million analysts say it would take to mount a serious challenge.

And the Jones campaign is signaling that the June numbers might not be that strong. To imply momentum, Jones and his aides are talking up promised -- but mostly unscheduled -- July and August fundraisers with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and high-profile national Republicans. Included are unidentified Bush Administration officials and Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

The campaign has been cagey when asked whether Jones, who loaned his campaign about $200,000 earlier this year, might further tap into his estimated $25 million in personal holdings to entice more outside donors.

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