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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Clinton Opens Fundraising Campaign to Assist Kerry

March 17, 2004|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

Former President Clinton, who despite his enormous popularity among Democrats played little part in the 2000 campaign, on Tuesday launched a 10-day effort to raise money for John F. Kerry's White House bid.

In an e-mail sent to 2.3 million Democrats -- the combined mailing lists of the Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee -- Clinton called on the party faithful to respond to Republican attacks by "flooding" Kerry headquarters with donations.

Clinton beseeched Democrats to raise $10 million in 10 days to help the Massachusetts senator battle President Bush, who has collected more than $150 million for his reelection bid. Clinton will also appear at a fundraising gala March 25 in Washington, along with former President Carter and many of Kerry's onetime rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Clinton never endorsed a candidate in the Democratic race and, until Tuesday, had largely remained on the sidelines.

"Today, you and I can send a powerful message to John Kerry," Clinton said in his e-mail. "We can promise him that we will never let him stand alone in the face of Republican attacks."

The e-mail also says: "But, don't wait to act. Join me in making March 16, 2004, a day you and I will always remember -- and one Republicans will never forget."

Experts on the presidency said Clinton's fundraising prowess should prove a boon for Kerry and that he could help the presumed nominee increase turnout among minority voters in the November election.

But they also said Kerry needs to make sure he is not overshadowed by the former president or too closely linked to him.

Clinton "will help energize the base and loosen the dollars from the donors; that's what he's being brought in to do," said Stephen Wayne, professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington and author of "The Road to the White House."

Wayne said that in the fall, Clinton's campaign skills can bring in a large African American and Latino voter turnout.

He said that among some voters, "it may very well be that when people think of Clinton now ... they'll think of the economy under Clinton compared with the economy under Bush, foreign policy under Clinton compared with foreign policy under Bush," and that Kerry will benefit from that comparison.

Still, Clinton remains one of the most polarizing figures on the nation's political landscape. A Gallup survey late last year asked 1,006 adults to rank their feelings about the former president on a spectrum from negative to positive; while the majority viewed Clinton favorably, sentiment was bunched at the two extremes of the scale -- very positive and very negative.

One worry for Kerry is that extensive reliance on Clinton could energize those voters who still vilify him.

A former senior advisor to Clinton, who asked not to be identified, warned that he "sucks up so much of the oxygen in a room" that Kerry's campaign advisors need to "strike an appropriate balance" in using him.

The advisor added that "at the end of the day, you have to make your own sale" as a presidential candidate.

Charles O. Jones, a retired political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, said: "You certainly don't want it to appear that Kerry is somehow not his own man. That's always a tricky thing. You don't want it to appear that, 'Gee, I've got to call in Bill Clinton to help myself.' "

Clinton was kept at arm's length during the 2000 campaign by Democratic nominee Al Gore, who was seeking to replace the man who had made him vice president.

Gore was concerned that voter anger over the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal that led to Clinton's impeachment would hurt the Democratic ticket in several key states.

But after he lost the tight, controversial election, Gore was criticized for not tapping Clinton to help rally minority voters in Florida and Arkansas, the former president's home state. Bush carried both those states.

"The way Gore handled Clinton in 2000 is inexplicable," said the former Clinton advisor. "He ended up with the worst of both worlds. For people who didn't like Clinton, he got tagged with that baggage. For those who liked Clinton, he got none of the credit" for the successes of the previous eight years.

Kerry aides welcomed Clinton's efforts Tuesday and immediately plastered the former president's visage across the campaign's website. But it remained unclear what Clinton would be doing for Kerry in coming months.

"Clinton is very popular in the Democratic Party. He's been a leader in the party for many years. We reached out to him, and he was happy to help," said Stephanie Cutter, a senior Kerry advisor.

She did not specify what Clinton would do on Kerry's behalf, saying, "we haven't had those discussions."

Cutter said the Kerry-Clinton relationship was based on their mutual legislative efforts and dates to 1994, when they worked on a federal crime bill to put 100,000 more police on the streets.

"They have a very good working and personal relationship," Cutter said, and have been in regular contact. "John Kerry throughout the campaign has often sought Bill Clinton's advice."

Tammy Sun, a spokeswoman for Clinton, described the men's relationship as "excellent," adding that "the president looks forward to being helpful in whatever way he can."

Kerry had collected about $40 million through late February, but the campaign had little left when he in effect secured the nomination in early March. He has set a goal of raising $80 million before the Democratic National Convention in late July.

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