Kerry Tromps As Big Rollers Start to Salute

With their primary victories on Feb. 3, Senators John Kerry and John Edwards have turned the campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination into a two-man race, at least for now.

And the sudden transformation of the campaign is being played out in New York, home of some of the Democratic Party’s most influential donors and fund-raisers. New Yorkers who remained on the fence are getting ready to support either Mr. Kerry or Mr. Edwards, while those who signed up for Howard Dean and Wesley Clark are grimly vowing to stay the course.

Joseph Lieberman’s supporters were left mourning their loss-or seeking solace in a new candidate’s arms-after the Senator bowed out of the race Tuesday evening.

As Mr. Kerry emerged from the shadows to become the front-runner for the nomination, he has been winning converts among New York’s big-time fund-raisers and donors. They see their opportunities, and they’re taking them before it’s too late.

In the weeks since the Senator’s surprising win in Iowa, the Kerry campaign has been adding plenty of New York’s boldface names to its ranks. For example, when Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri dropped out of the race after the Iowa caucuses, prominent Gephardt supporters like Felix Rohatyn, Leo Hindery Jr. and Skip Stein jumped aboard the Kerry bandwagon. At the same time, scads of previously tentative donors suddenly doubled their contributions. And attorney Melvyn Weiss, who gained fame as a class-action attorney, has said that he’s on the verge of endorsing either Senator Kerry or Senator Edwards.

Democratic insiders eagerly await Mr. Weiss’ decision, because he doesn’t just represent himself: Last year, he formed a group called the Interested Democrats, a 30-member federation of power brokers which decided to sit out the primary race until a clear Democratic front-runner had emerged. While more than a dozen of the group’s members eventually dropped out, at least 15 remain, including former Democratic National Committee finance chairman Marvin Rosen and real-estate mogul David Steiner, among others. Should they all back Senator Kerry, it would bring the money class one step closer to consolidating behind the Massachusetts Senator.

“I think it’s fairly obvious that it’s down to Kerry and Edwards, and so far it looks like people trust Kerry’s length of service over Edwards’ natural abilities and charm,” Mr. Weiss said on Feb. 3, as voters in seven states were going to the polls.

The parade of big New York names moving into the Kerry camp is good news for the Senator’s wallet. But not everybody is convinced that Mr. Kerry is a certain winner. Many prominent fund-raisers, like philanthropist Anne Hess, billionaire financier George Soros and investment banker Paul Beirne, are still uncommitted. And despite rumors of massive defections, a number of die-hard supporters of Howard Dean and Wesley Clark seem to be holding out hope for yet another unexpected turn of events in Campaign ’04. They still are talking about victory, soliciting checks and even planning big fund-raisers. Senator Edwards was scheduled to be in New York on Feb. 4 for a fund-raiser in the home of trial lawyers Judith Livingston and Thomas Moore. Mr. Soros, who is raising money for all the Democratic candidates will host a fund-raiser for Mr. Clark on Feb. 19, the same day that media executive Diane Straus Tucker will host a fund-raiser for Mr. Dean.

Mr. Edwards, who grew up in a working-class Southern family and put himself through North Carolina State University, had little in the way of a New York base when he first launched his campaign. So he had to work hard to cultivate a new network of wealthy, connected contributors. He did manage to recruit a number of D.N.C. members-including fund-raiser Laura Ross investment bankers Richard Thaler and Woody Young-but much of his fund-raising steam came from untapped sources like philanthropist and fund-raiser Fern Hurst, entrepreneur May Lee and her investment-banker husband, John Hall, and Goldman Sachs’ advisory director, Bob Katz. Many of his supporters are new players on the national scene.

“You could say my name to most people in the Democratic Party, and they wouldn’t know who I or my husband was,” said Ms. Lee, adding that she hasn’t been active in politics since 1984. “And I think there are a lot of us like that in the Senator’s campaign-people who have never really been directly involved or even given money.”

Which does not, in the end, seem to have harmed Mr. Edwards’ fund-raising efforts. Particularly since Iowa, the Edwards team has been raking in substantial new contributions. “I came into the office [the day after the Iowa caucuses] and just started calling, both people who had given at my solicitation in the past and people who hadn’t,” said Mr. Katz. “I made the calls in 20 minutes, and it was almost like stemming the tide.” Two hours later, he had raised $25,000.

That kind of fund-raising prowess has been evident all along from the trial lawyers, another group that has been active for Mr. Edwards. The Senator is a trial lawyer himself, and one look at his donor list reflects that fact. Prominent New York trial lawyers who support Mr. Edwards include Robert Conason, Peter DeBlasio and Harvey Weitz, as well as his hosts on Feb. 4, Ms. Livingston and Mr. Moore. They are all members of a group called the Inner Circle of Advocates, an elite organization of 100 top litigators. Senator Edwards is an emeritus member of the group.

Mr. Moore has said that he plans to keep backing Senator Edwards as long as he’s in the race. Based on the Feb. 3 primary results, there’s no reason to believe that he will be dropping out any time soon. In fact, he is emerging as Senator Kerry’s main challenger. “This is going to be a Southern coronation for John Edwards,” said Mr. Moore. “The Senator is in a big, big dogfight right now, but he is ultimately the most formidable candidate against George Bush.”

Not Giving Up

Supporters of the also-ran candidates remain firmly committed, even as the results of Feb. 3 suggested an uphill battle in the coming weeks. “I am definitely sticking behind Howard Dean,” said I.B.M. heiress Olive Watson. “He is a man of his word and someone I strongly believe in. I haven’t felt this excited about a candidate since I worked on Robert Kennedy’s campaign.”

“There are no defectors from the Clark campaign at all in terms of the really big names and the money people,” said Clark campaign fund-raiser and senior adviser Barbara Layton. “Everybody’s still supporting him and holding on tight and waiting for the results of the primaries. They’re going to see how the primaries play out before any moves are made.”

Even Mr. Lieberman’s supporters stood by their candidate until Feb. 3. “Many of [us] wanted him to stay in the race, even after the disappointing showing in New Hampshire,” said one staunch Lieberman supporter, who asked to remain anonymous. “Some of that is because he seems like the last hope of our party nominating a moderate who would carry on [Bill] Clinton’s policies. There is also a sense that anything is possible.”

Those words “anything is possible” have become something of a mantra for these contributors. After all, it’s hard for donors to defect when they have stumped for a candidate, invited him into their homes, and talked him up to friends and colleagues. And it’s harder still when their involvement has become part of their social identity, a visible sign of who they are and what they believe.

“The primary fund-raising circuit seems to break down into four kinds of people,” said Jonathan Sheffer, a long-time Democratic donor as well as the founder and conductor of the Eos Orchestra, who has followed the race closely but has yet to back a particular candidate. “There are the Dean people, who are passionate about a cause. There are the Kerry people, who are passionate about winning. There are the Clark people, who are the Clinton legacy people. And then there are the Edwards people, who I think are really captivated by the person more than anything else.”

Most of the campaigns, of course, insist that their donor base is diverse-a “big tent,” in the words of Kerry supporter and D.N.C. member Robert Zimmerman-and that some of Mr. Sheffer’s distinctions are overstated. The Kerry camp, for example, is just as steeped in Clinton cash as the Clark team. Both have attracted a wide swath of all the usual D.N.C. suspects, and just one glance back in time reveals that some of Mr. Kerry’s supporters-Orin Kramer, Roger Altman, John Catsimatidis, Steve Rattner and Fred Hochberg-spent just as much time at Clinton-klatches as Clark supporters like Alan and Susan Patricof, Sarah and Victor Kovner, and Stanley Shuman.

That said, a lot of Mr. Sheffer’s observations do hold true. Mr. Kerry’s supporters do tend to frame their support in terms of their candidate’s electability. “Kerry people are looking for someone who can win in November,” said Fred Hochberg, a prominent Kerry supporter and dean of the New School’s Milano Graduate School. And, yes, Howard Dean donors often are motivated by a sense of cause. That enthusiasm suggests why Dr. Dean may be able to hold his support through setbacks. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that many of Dr. Dean’s staunchest supporters are old friends from his prep school and college days, like fund manager Jim Torrey and media executive Diane Straus Tucker. They are more loyal to the man himself than to, say, the Democratic National Committee. “We’ve all given up part of our work-life to do this,” said Ms. Straus Tucker, who met Mr. Dean when she was a freshman at Yale.

But at some point, perhaps soon, the scattered tribes of the political class will have to put aside their difference and unite behind a single candidate.

“It’s very hard to imagine how they can come together, but ultimately they will,” said Mr. Sheffer. “They will have to.”