Senator Kerry in First Sweep For N.Y. Money

On March 11, several dozen of New York’s wealthiest Democratic donors and fund-raisers are scheduled to gather at Cipriani on 42nd Street, where they will drink, eat and empty their pockets for someone they hope will be the next President-John Kerry.

At the event, these supporters will be pledging their allegiance to the Massachusetts Senator. Among them will be major Democratic money people like supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis, satellite technology executive Bernard Schwartz and cardboard company executive Dennis Mehiel.

The dinner gathering is intended as a showy roll-out of Mr. Kerry’s finance committee. It will establish beyond any doubt what many operatives around the city have concluded on their own: John Kerry has established the best political and fund-raising organization in New York.

Unlike any of his Democratic opponents, Mr. Kerry has had a full-time staff in place in New York for months. He’s been holding weekly meetings with many of his donors and fund-raisers here to plot strategy. And the list of fund-raisers who have committed to Mr. Kerry is particularly impressive-especially when you consider that it is coming together as early as March, when potential candidates are typically weighing the option of running and established candidates are just beginning to formalize their operations.

“Kerry and his team have put together what is far and away the best operation in New York,” said Simon Rosenberg, executive director of the New Democrat Network, a national organization of centrist Democrats. “They’re just incredibly aggressive and they’re outworking all the other candidates.”

Despite the usual rule of politics that makes campaigns flee in horror from the front-runner designation, Mr. Kerry’s aides are already well into their end-zone dance when it comes to the campaign’s early performance in New York. “Kerry is doing especially well in New York because it’s the Parris Island of Democratic fund-raising, and that’s an environment John Kerry can relate to,” said his spokesman, David Wade. “He’s got a military man’s sense of discipline and order, and he treats this endeavor like a battle.”

Only weeks ago, Mr. Kerry was just another face in a crowd of Democratic candidates making the rounds in New York. Many of New York’s top Democratic donors and fund-raisers were holding off on committing to a candidate, at least publicly. The candidates were struggling to break through amid the usual routine of courtship, in which strong-willed players are thrilled to be sought after by multiple candidates, all of whom are desperate for help drumming up support among the donor classes. The primary elections, despite a new schedule that sets the contests closer together, were still a long way off. And Democratic donors, still reeling from their party’s disastrous midterm election results, were openly expressing an almost mournful level of skepticism about the party’s prospects of defeating President George Bush in an election in 2004.

In a measure of just how dispirited New York donors had become, Melvin Weiss, a Manhattan class-action lawyer and top money man, sent out a letter on Jan. 6 to some 19 of “the most active contributors and fundraisers” to invite them to a “brainstorming session” on how to pool their support to greatest effect. “I am sure that we all feel the same frustration over our party’s inability to field a winning candidate for President,” the letter read.

While some Democrats were attempting to bring some order to the selection process of big backers, however, the candidates and their staffs were waging an intense battle to win the loyalties of New York’s money people. Donors were barraged with calls from candidates and their campaigns. And the most persistent and effective, according to many observers of the process, was Team Kerry.

Behind the scenes, the Kerry camp had established a full-time operation in a nondescript midtown office headed by former Democratic Congressional fund-raiser Jamie Whitehead, with three permanent staffers and a rotating group of volunteers.

Kerry himself attended meetings with his top money people, and when Mr. Kerry wasn’t around to cadge checks and plead for pledges of support, Mr. Whitehead and company were. In January, the Capitol Hill weekly Roll Call noted that Mr. Kerry had been “the most aggressive candidate in hiring staff.” Now, it seems, that investment is showing dividends.

“Now Kerry can look around at New Yorkers and say, ‘I’ve put together an incredible operation-New York donors, you’d better jump on board because I’m the candidate with the best campaign and the best shot at winning,'” said Democratic consultant Jef Pollock. “He can also wink and remind them that he’s got a billion dollars of Heinz money in his back pocket.”

But Will the Buzz Last?

It is a testament to his progress in New York and elsewhere that he is now regularly considered in the national media to be a front-runner, despite Senator Joe Lieberman’s superior name recognition and better standing in some national polls. But that’s where the picture gets somewhat murky. Being a front-runner this far from an election-the first primary is almost a year away-can be a curse, as many a veteran politico can testify.

“Clearly, Kerry has built an impressive organization,” said Robert Zimmerman, a D.N.C. committeeman who was a major fund-raiser for Al Gore in 2000, and who is uncommitted for 2004. “But the trick is not to be the front-runner in February of 2003-it’s to emerge with that momentum as we approach the primaries in November or December. The one who’s got the buzz down the stretch is truly best-equipped to win the primary.”

The early front-runner also tends to become a much bigger target than he had been as a mere member of the pack. That has already manifested itself in several ways. For one, Mr. Kerry is starting to become the national media’s new Al Gore, getting tagged as a panderer for talking about his newly discovered Jewish roots (which the Boston Globe unearthed by hiring a genealogist) and as a liar for, well, lying to a reporter about his health shortly before announcing that he had prostate cancer.

Being the front-runner also tends to raise expectations to levels that are sometimes impossible to meet. Mr. Kerry, for example, has managed to attract lots of positive attention in New York about the direction of his campaign. This could simply mean that Mr. Kerry is working circles around his competitors, and that the results will bear him out. But if, say, Mr. Lieberman or Senator John Edwards were to surpass him in campaign funds next month-Mr. Lieberman is no slouch at fund-raising, and Mr. Edwards has had a good couple of weeks in New York-Mr. Kerry could come out looking like a flop. (The exact results won’t be known until the filing on March 31.)

“The problem with Kerry presenting himself as a colossus is that he may turn out to have feet of clay,” said an operative on another campaign. “Ketchup money [from wife Theresa Heinz] or not, he may end up effectively raising his expectations beyond his means.”

Indeed, while Mr. Kerry almost certainly got off to the best and earliest start lining up the insiders in New York, other camps have some impressively credentialed operatives laboring to make sure that his lead in this area is short lived. And there’s no telling which candidate will capture the fancy of Democratic voters, who have barely begun to pay attention to the ever-shifting field of candidates that currently includes Representative Richard Gephardt and Reverend Al Sharpton. Recent history is littered with candidates who were fashionable among insiders early on-think Bill Bradley-who faltered down the stretch. (The field may grow significantly: One possible addition to the group of Democratic contenders is Wesley Clark, the former general who masterminded the military operation in Kosovo. Mr. Clark is coming off a highly authoritative appearance on Meet the Press , and could potentially usurp some of John Kerry’s war-veteran appeal.)

But there are undeniable advantages in being the front-runner. There’s an immediate cash payoff. And early successes tend to have a multiplier effect on supporters who, after all, want to be with someone who can go all the way. And with the 2004 primaries packed closer together than ever toward the beginning of the calendar, there is a greater premium on early organizing. It was no accident that the Kerry campaign deliberately set out to make an early splash in time for the first-quarter filing in March.

Judging by numerous conversations with Kerry supporters-many of them liberals who say things like “I really like Howard Dean’s message, but … “-there is a large streak of pragmatism in their choice of candidate: Namely, they back him because he has managed to look like a winner.

“He’s certainly the best in the field to challenge Bush,” said supporter Richard Kahan, a Manhattan-based philanthropist and Democratic activist. “I’ve met Howard Dean, who is a very nice guy, and I like Gephardt and Lieberman a lot, but when you do matchups of who can beat Bush, he’s obviously the one to do it.”

That idea, not surprisingly, remains a key part of the pitch to big-money backers.

“Finding a candidate they believe can win is important,” said Mr. Whitehead. “The electability issue is definitely something people talk about.”

Whatever their reasons, the ranks of Kerry supporters in New York are growing fast, and now includes such veterans as Orin Kramer, a major Gore fund-raiser who is close to a number of the candidates, and Joe Flom, a senior partner at the law firm of Skadden Arps.

And if the Kerry fundraising operation falls short, there’s always Plan B. On the invitation to his March 11 “Kick-Off Reception,” supporters were divided into the categories of “Hosts,” who will be expected to raise $10,000, “Co-Chairs,” whose target is $20,000, and “Chairs,” who will have to come up with $50,000.

At the top, a category called “Honorary Chair” lists exactly one name: Theresa Heinz Kerry. No amount is specified.