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$25 plus $70 plus $48 ... equals millions

Presidential candidates rake in record amounts in small sums. Just as valuable: the support those dollars represent.

July 23, 2007|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

From her computer in Anchorage, Sharon Pipino hits the "send" button once a month, and delivers another $25 to Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

"I just can't help myself," Pipino said with a chuckle. A massage therapist who had never made a campaign donation until this year, she added: "If I have some left over at the end of the month, I send him more." She has made at least four donations totaling $164.21.

With the 2008 presidential campaign generating intense interest, candidates are finding that small donations are anything but chump change. They are raising unprecedented amounts in small sums, employing the Internet and traditional direct-mail and telemarketing techniques, and holding low-budget fundraising rallies.

In a campaign expected to cost the two major-party nominees a combined $1 billion, a few bucks from Anchorage don't mean much on their own. But candidates hope to leverage those donations into more money and something at least as valuable: volunteer campaign workers.

"You want people to give their time," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said. "We need people to do phone banks and canvassing.... These are the people who are going to provide the foundation of a very strong national organization."

Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) leads all major candidates in collecting small donations, receiving nearly 30% of his $58.5 million in small increments. The $16.5 million he raised in amounts of $200 or less in the first half of the year is more than all the other Democrats combined raised in such small donations.

Much of it comes via the Internet unsolicited. Plouffe estimated Obama raised $5 million by using direct mail, with the average donation $70.

In Seattle, Obama held a $25-a-person event that attracted several thousand people and raised perhaps $125,000. Afterward, he went to a high-end event where he raised four-figure sums. Altogether, he raised $800,000 in Washington in the first half of the year, compared with $270,000 by his chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

In the first six months of 2007, nearly 16% of the $300 million raised by Democratic and Republican presidential candidates has come in increments of $200 or less, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Exact comparisons with past elections are difficult, given inflation and changes in federal election law. But through the first half of the year, the percentage that candidates are raising in small donations has ticked up compared with the last two elections.

In hard dollars, the amounts are eye-popping. The $46.4 million that all candidates have raised in small chunks is about four times as much as all candidates raised in small donations for the same period in the last two presidential campaigns.

Small donations hearten advocates of campaign finance regulation. They hope Internet fundraising will lessen the influence of high rollers. But of course, influential players bundle small change into larger checks.

Republican front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani has received several such blocks of money. One came from H. Douglas Barclay and his New York-based law firm, Hiscock & Barclay.

Until recently, Barclay was ambassador to El Salvador. The nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics counted $216,000 in federal donations this decade from Barclay and his family to Republicans, including to President Bush.

Now, Barclay and his law firm are donating to Giuliani. In addition to large donations from some partners, the firm recently bundled about $3,900 in amounts of between $5 and $57 from other attorneys in the firm. Federal election law permits law firms and other partnerships to give money and attribute the donations to partners.

The specific donations were a surprise to some partners.

"It's news to me," Hiscock partner Lawrence Zimmerman said of his two donations of $48 each to Giuliani. "I would not have contributed to Mr. Giuliani's campaign. I am a dyed-in-wool Kennedy Democrat."

Zimmerman said, however, that he put money into an account for "judicious" political donations managed by others at his firm.

Zimmerman called himself a "team player" and said he would not fuss about the Giuliani contribution. But he added that although he considered Giuliani a good lawyer and prosecutor, "I don't want another ... cowboy as president."

In the second quarter of the year, Giuliani received more money -- $17 million -- from individual donors than did any other Republican candidate. But in the first half of 2007, less than 10% of Giuliani's money came from people who gave $200 or less.

Even as his high-end fundraising faltered, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) captured nearly twice the amount Giuliani raised in small donations. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) is also raising successfully from small donors, though he is a blip in national polls. He raised $2.2 million in donations of $200 or less, almost as much Giuliani.

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